Does the act of belief (substitute faith if you’re so inclined) outweigh the actual content of reverence? Such is the question posed in Zal Batmanglij’s great, if somewhat intellectually dubious, Sound of My Voice. I can’t remember liking a film this much whose ethos I find so suspect. The sci-fi cult thriller focuses on a cynical couple’s attempt to infiltrate and expose a beautiful cult leader claiming to be a time traveler from 2059. Of course – the longer the couple spends with the cult and its enigmatic leader, the more inclined they find themselves believing her to be true. Is she from the future, crazy, a con artist, all-of-the-above? Does it even matter? For thoughts on the film, hit the jump.
(Note: There will be some mild spoilers to follow.)
The 2011 Sundance graduate opens as Peter and Lorna (Christopher Denham & Nicole Vicius) – an intimately involved duo of documentary filmmakers – are bound and blindfolded by two men in robes. From there, the two are showered, cleaned, put into those same robes, led down to a basement, forced to enact some bizarre secret handshake – clap, slap, slap, snap, clap… and wait along with the most motley crew of followers for… someone. This someone turns out be Maggie (Brit Marling – also serving as co-writer on the film) – a dying but radiant twenty-something who claims to be from the year 2059 and forecasts ‘devastating events’ in the not too distant future. From the get-go Peter and Lorna mark Maggie as dangerous and set out to expose her for the fraud they think she is; but it’s hard to see why Maggie is such a threat to them – she has a cult in an empty house’s basement, her followers number about eight – two of whom are over fifty, another overweight, the rest – less than intimidating. When Lorna terrifyingly remarks how Maggie may be forming her own personal militia – it’s hard to be anything but amused at the prospect of this ragtag crew forming their own army. But that’s the point. Sound of My Voice is far less critical of this “supposed cult” as it is of those who snootily dismiss it. Cynicism and skepticism are the targets. As the film progresses, Maggie’s ‘validity’ becomes increasingly moot. The question becomes will Peter and Lorna believe her true.
Brit Marling is simply astounding as Maggie – able to balance the etherealness and fire-breathing intensity of the character seamlessly. Sweet and docile yet unbelievably manipulative and often times downright cruel. These dualities, instead of becoming contradictory, in Marling’s hands feel absolutely essential. The rest of the cast is equally good, in particular Christopher Denham as super skeptic Peter who slowly finds himself completely taken by Marling, and Nicole Vicius – as Lorna his soft-spoken girlfriend forced to extreme measures to keep their relationship intact.
Sound of My Voice makes ample use of its limited budget – a majority of the film taking place in a rundown basement, creating a palpable sense of claustrophobia and tension many a multi-million dollar film struggle to ever achieve. A scene, wherein Peter swallows a small camera to smuggle into the cult – becomes unbearably intense, as Maggie demands all of her disciples to purge themselves of the corporate agendas and mass-market influences they have swallowed up. One by one the followers force themselves to literally throw up. When Maggie notices Peter refusing to participate, she naturally confronts him the scene evolving from a master-class in suspense (Will Peter be found out?) into a devastating emotional putdown. A latter scene invoking a certain Cranberries number is so damn good, I’m remiss to even hint at what transpires within.
And yet – Marling/Maggie is so captivating and Peter/Lorna so wishy-washy and confused, it’s impossible not to want to side with the cult. Whether or not Maggie’s for real or not is irrelevant. Truth becomes negligible. Belief is all that matters. Conviction -key. In the post screening Q&A, Batmanglij criticized a perceived skepticism he noted in many people today. He (and Marling) noted there’s something “romantic” about unflinching and total belief in an ideal. Romantic – sure, but also dare-I-say… naïve. Everybody upholds some sort of belief system – whether it’s based on spiritual, materialistic, physical or future-doomsayer values. But there’s something inherently off putting about blind faith and total conviction. The ability to think ‘Hey maybe I’m wrong.’ is an undervalued and rare commodity. Although that is in and of itself, its own conviction – but at least it’s based on something tangible e.g. yourself vs. the intangibles: heaven, a million dollars, the dream girl, the future…
Perhaps this is what Sound of my Voice’s true aim is: confronting what one believes, questioning a set of values, provoking and prodding. That crazy person across the street proclaiming the ‘Rapture is Near’ – maybe they’re right, maybe I’m wrong in using the descriptive ‘crazy’. But this in turn puts all beliefs on the same pedestal – which seems downright unfair and just plain wrong. Not all beliefs are created equal. Some are a whole lot sillier or worse – cruel than others. Sound of My Voice unequivocally advocates belief supersedes content. I, however, remain… skeptical.
Regardless, Sound of My Voice is essential viewing and sure to spark more than one lively debate afterwards. The film opens in theaters April 27th. I heartily endorse seeking the picture out.