A funny thing happened to me recently. I had just walked out of the cinema after seeing Sound of My Voice, the new drama from 28 year old writer/actress/producer Brit Marling. It was easily one of my most anticipated films of the year, simply because of Marling’s debut film, Another Earth, a gut wrenching tale of ordinary people caught in the extraordinary circumstance of parallel universes, which quite simply blew me away.
So yes, the film had some lofty expectations to live up to, and as I walked out of that cinema, I did so with furrowed brow, completely puzzled as to whether or not it had actually achieved that aspiration. A week later, I’m still not sure. But I can say this much with certainty though: I sure have thought about it a lot since then.
At its most basic premise, Sound of My Voice is the story of school teacher Peter (Christopher Denham) and his ex-Hollywood socialite girlfriend Lorna (Nicole Vicius), an aspiring documentary filmmaking team who through falsehoods and elaborate hand acrobatics infiltrate a basement bound cult in Los Angelese suburbia. They scrub their bodies, don the standard issue white cult garb and even swallow some pieces of covert technology, all to expose the cult’s leader, Maggie (Brit Marling), a terse young lady, as charismatic as she is enigmatic, who claims to have travelled back from 2054 to prepare and save a select few from a quickly approaching global calamity.
As Peter, Denham is expected to shoulder the lion’s share of the character development, as his belief that Maggie is leading her glassy-eyed followers down a path that ends in some slit wrists or funny tasting Kool-Aid is thoroughly tested once Maggie takes an interest in him. And while Denham certainly represents himself amicably, the problem is just that with the film’s rather abrupt and cold start – which admittedly is rather effective in throwing the viewer headfirst into this strange world where they know almost as little as the characters – we simply don’t know enough about his and Lorna’s past to truly become emotionally invested in them. Their matchbook sized biographies are relegated to a pair of two minute long flashbacks, and then almost forgotten about until much later, and even then only touched on briefly.
But while theirs may be the central journey, despite its shortcomings, it’s Maggie that will be dragging you by the nose down this twisted path. Brit Marling, swathed in messianic robes and tethered to an ever present oxygen tank (her body is allergic to the toxins of this time), is simply magnetic. A study in understatement, she wields her words like a weapon of faith. Her soft spoken sermon is a deadly siren call and you – just like Peter – can’t help but to follow her into this labyrinth.
But the absurdity of her claims, spotlighted in one particular scene involving Maggie’s breathy rendition of a supposed folk song from her time, means that you will always have a nagging sliver of suspicion. Whereas Another Earth was an emotional affair, this is more of a cerebral one as you try to put together this puzzle while never being able to fully trust the shapes of the pieces you have.
Adding to this ever-increasing sense of paranoia and tension is Patrick Giraudi’s subtle but unsettling sound design and the sparse but highly effective direction of Zal Batmanglij’s (who also co-wrote the script). With a deft touch, he turns a simple, carpeted room into a grand stage, drawing every bit of suspense from its spartan walls.
While the film plays out as a sequence of “Wait a minute” moments, each more confounding than the last, through Marling’s performance and Batmanglj’s simple but richly layered atmosphere, you’re compelled to never look away. Especially when the film hits the third act, and Maggie’s tests of Peter’s convictions takes on a sinister and illegal slant when it involves a strange, obsessive compulsive little girl in his class, who he has to…
Well, to give away any further plot details would completely ruin the experience for you. Kind of. You see, that’s the brilliance of this film, but ironically probably also its biggest detractor. It is completely and irrevocably insistent on not giving you any answers. Actually, that’s not true. While there are some visual conundrums that are frustratingly introduced with no possible way of solving them, there are points in the film where the characters explicitly and unequivocally spew out answers directly to the audience. You’re just never sure if you can believe what they’re saying.
It’s a film that definitely will be too frustrating for many to truly enjoy, and even when it looks like the curtain has been drawn back on the film’s biggest mystery – the truth of Maggie’s claims – the film refuses to do what is expected by ending abruptly before you even have time to gather your thoughts. What this results in is a film going experience that paradoxically truly only begins once the end credits roll.
Well it’s been about a week now since those credits, and it has been haunting me ever since, looping endlessly in my head as I continuously question my conclusions. In the end though, I can’t help but smile and be impressed by the Fourth Wall breaking prescience Marling’s Maggie showed as she spoke to her followers, informing them that once they’ve begun this journey, and once she’s left them, they will always still hear the sound of her voice.
Last Updated: July 25, 2012