The first ten minutes of Sound of My Voice are some of the most claustrophobic, dread-filled moments to grace American cinema in years. With no preamble, we follow a young couple as they voluntarily submit to an ominous set of late-night rituals beginning with handing over their valuables and allowing themselves to be handcuffed and blindfolded, and culminating in an elaborate secret handshake and meeting with a mysterious leader in a basement somewhere in the San Fernando Valley.
We quickly learn that the stranger, Maggie, claims to be a traveler from the future who has returned to collect a chosen few followers, whom she will lead to a “safe place.” The young couple, Lorna and Peter, are aspiring documentarians and have infiltrated Maggie’s sect to expose her as a fraud and cult leader.
Co-written by director Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling (who plays Maggie), Sound of My Voice relentlessly simmers and threatens to boil over at any moment. Along with the writers and cinematographer Rachel Morrison, the cast ratchets the tension tight and never lets up. The story grows more intricate as other characters and complications appear without explanation, and we are left, like Peter and Lorna, to grope our way through and endeavor to separate fact from fantasy.
As Peter and Lorna delve deeper into Maggie’s world, the lines between reality and fiction blur. Peter, who blames his mother’s death on a New Age cult, begins as a fierce opponent to the entire idea of Maggie’s group. Slowly, she breaks through his armor with both intimidation and seduction—well-used tools in the cult trade. Lorna’s relationship to the group and to Peter grows strained as things get weirder and weirder.
Under the claim that the toxic climate of our time is poisonous to Maggie, she lives in her basement world with her white-clad followers who grow her special food, cater to her whims and provide her with oxygen. She demands strange tributes, and they are given without question from the followers and without explanation to the audience. This only deepens the unsettling and fascinating aura of this film. Why is she collecting blood from her followers? How does she know Peter teaches at a girls’ school and where did she obtain that yearbook? Does she suspect Peter and Lorna plan to sabotage her?
Brit Marling is riveting as Maggie. In one brilliantly excruciating scene (involving apples, a tarp and directions for followers to purge themselves of the “poisons” within), she flits between girlish, serene and malicious. She bullies Peter into what Lorna later describes as an “emotional orgasm” of tears and vomit. Marling’s Maggie is a twisted messiah whom, most frightening of all, we can never completely damn.
Christopher Denham as Peter and Nicole Vicius as Lorna are electric as a couple under immense pressure. Watching Peter slowly fall under Maggie’s sway to the point of making dangerous and immoral decisions is both frustrating and exhilarating. And Denham carries it off with such authenticity that it seems the most natural progression in the world. We grind our teeth and cheer on Vicius as her Lorna rebels at the same time that, by the bewildering finale of the movie, we wonder if she’s made a horrible mistake.
Batmanglij and Marling masterfully dole out information in this story, always giving us just a little less than we’d like. This is Hitchcock crammed into a tiny basement. It’s Louis Malle at the La Brea Tar Pits. New characters are introduced, seemingly coincidental story lines merge, and things get more and more dangerous. Our sense of foreboding deepens as we meet a troubled young girl (in a lovely performance from Avery Kristin Pohl) who rarely speaks, antagonizes her classmates, and goes home to build elaborate sculptures entirely from black Legos. And then there’s the ambiguous relationship with her father (a well-turned cameo from James Urbaniak). Is he helping her? Abusing her? And who is this woman (played with grace and precision by Davenia McFadden) checking her hotel room for bugs and handling official-looking manila envelopes? We wonder what they have to do with the greater story, but once we know, we almost wish we didn’t.
Sound of My Voice is an expertly told existential mystery. Is Maggie really from the future? And, in the end, is that what matters? The filmmakers refuse to feed us answers just as they refuse us explanations. We are left to sort things out for ourselves. The filmmakers ask their audience to (gasp) think. As a result, this intellectual thriller shot on a shoestring budget outshines any mega-budget summer offering and provides striking proof that independent cinema is alive and well.
Director: Zal Batmanglij
Writer: Brit Marling, Zal Batmanglij
Starring: Brit Marling, Christopher Denham, Nicole Vicius
Release Date: Apr. 27, 2012