I’m sure this won’t exactly come as a shock, but I’ve made quite a few embarrassing screw-ups in the time that I’ve been blogging. There have been spelling errors, lapses in research, mistaken names, etc. A particularly painful self-inflicted thorn in my side is my review of Another Earth.
I went into that movie with sky-high expectations, hoping for an intelligent no-budget science fiction parable. What I got was a much more character-driven film that was masterfully written and acted, though the science was inaccurately presented and the “alternate universe” premise wasn’t used to its full potential. All of that said, I was so upset about the film I didn’t get to see that I didn’t stop to appreciate the film I did see until it was too late. I really do owe that movie another viewing sometime.
That aside, the film was still more than enough to make me a fan of Brit Marling. She proved herself in Another Earth to be a fantastic actor and a very talented writer, though of course it helps that she’s not bad-looking either. As a result, I was determined to watch her next film with an open mind.
To my delight, Sound of My Voice did not disappoint.
Our protagonists for the movie are Peter (Christopher Denham) and his girlfriend, Lorna (Nicole Vicius). They’re a couple of new recruits into a cult somewhere in the San Fernando Valley. Their leader is Maggie (Marling, also a co-writer and co-producer on the film), a young woman who claims to be from the year 2054. What nobody in the cult knows, however, is that Peter and Lorna are actually a couple of skeptics going undercover so they can secretly film the proceedings and expose them in a documentary.
The premise is a simple one, but its execution is deceptively complex.
Let’s start by examining our main characters. Peter lost his mother at age 13 because she had a “New Age” way of thinking and refused any kind of treatment for her cancer. So Peter is a fierce believer in logic and he holds a passionate grudge against fanatics who knowingly reject rational thought. Lorna, meanwhile, is the daughter of a Hollywood producer and a model-turned-actress. She had her first hangover at age 12 and her first intervention at age 16. So she has a history of being impressionable, falling in with bad crowds, falling into addictions, etc.
By the way, all of this information is told to us via voice-over. I’d normally condemn the film for conveying exposition in such a lazy manner, but I have a harder time of that here. For one thing, the camerawork has a slightly hand-held look (it’s very subtle, though) and the film is occasionally intercut with title cards counting from one to ten. The implication is that there’s some kind of narrator behind the lens who knows everything that’s going on. On the one hand, this gives some amount of sense to the expository voice-overs. It also fits in with the slightly dreamlike atmosphere the film creates. On the other hand, nothing ultimately comes of the “narrator” angle. It doesn’t really advance the narrative in any way or contribute anything thematically to the proceedings (Y Tu Mama Tambien is probably my favorite example of narration used in such a way), so where’s the point?
Anyway, this information is all implied or stated outright in the dialogue between characters, and it leads to moments that wouldn’t have been anywhere near as powerful without the prior knowledge. So whatever.
Getting back to my original point, both of our characters are compromised from the start. They both have a ton of emotional baggage, which is precisely the clay that charismatic and perceptive people are so great at shaping. These issues also lead to a lot of heated squabbles between the two protagonists, as they argue over who’s gone further off the deep end. Oh, and lest we forget, this is what Maggie looks like. So there’s a bit of jealousy from Lorna thrown in there for good measure.
Speaking of Maggie, we may as well get to her. One of the many interesting things about Maggie is that she doesn’t initially seem like the type of person who’d lead a cult. For one thing, there’s nothing ostentatious about her. She’s soft-spoken, and she admits with no hesitation that her whole “time travel” story sounds totally ludicrous. It also helps that though Maggie is beautiful, she isn’t gorgeous in a supermodel kind of way. She’s charming, but only in the way that any other intelligent, kind, pretty 20-something girl would be. She doesn’t look or sound like the kind of person who’d be heading a personality cult, she looks and sounds like someone you’d meet on a bus.
Then again, she is seen breathing from an oxygen tank in her opening scene. Whether she really needs the tank or if it’s just for show, we never find out. Either way, the message is clear: There’s something slightly off about this girl. Nevertheless, it’s easy to be attracted to Maggie, and the fact that she’s so completely unlike most other alleged “messiahs” somehow makes her that much easier to believe.
But then, roughly half an hour in, Maggie leads her disciples in a vomiting exercise. That’s our first sign that Maggie might actually be a megalomaniac, and we only go deeper into the rabbit hole from there. The whole scene was absolutely perfect, but I don’t dare talk about it any more than I already have.
Judging from the premise, you might have guessed that things would be getting progressively freaky. But to say that doesn’t do justice to the characters’ developments or to the incredible way in which the plot unfolds. It’s a fascinating thing to watch Peter and Lorna as Maggie starts to work her magic on both of them. Because our protagonists are so wonderfully written and superbly acted, they’re sympathetic enough that it’s easy to get invested in the question of whether or not their relationship will be intact at the end of the film. Even better, the film also includes a married couple who join the cult at the same time Peter and Lorna do, so we get to compare and contrast. Additionally, there’s always the question of when these characters will get in so deep that they decide to turn back.
Yet it must be asked: If they do choose to commit themselves to Maggie’s cult, so what? Maggie’s stated agenda focuses exclusively on finding her loved ones in the future so she can better prepare them for the famine, war, death, and sickness to come in the next few decades. There’s no hatred or bigotry in her words, and I don’t remember hearing anything about Maggie collecting money from her followers. Yes, she and her colleagues do use the same psychological tricks that would be expected of any cult leader (mental regression and emphasis on emotions over logic are both especially popular), but there doesn’t seem to be any real harm done. All the participants are there of their own free will, and no mention is made of repercussions for choosing to leave. That said, though Maggie doesn’t claim to care about whether or not anyone believes what she says, she seems very insistent that everyone does as they’re told.
Still, no laws or ethical boundaries are really broken until the movie’s third-act turning point. There is an actual felony committed in the climax, and it’s done for reasons that could charitably be called questionable. But when we see the end result… well, you’ll just have to see it for yourself.
From the very outset, we’re led to believe that Maggie isn’t really from the future and that her whole story is some kind of con. But as the film progresses, the answer to that issue becomes less and less clear-cut. Maggie can’t predict future events, because of course she doesn’t remember every little detail from thirty years before she was born. She smokes and drinks in her down time, but just because she’s from the future doesn’t mean she’s a saint. Then, during the third act, we find what appears to be some very damning proof that Maggie is from the present day. This information, however, comes before some highly convincing evidence to the contrary as seen in the climax.
Thematically, there’s a lot going on here. The film’s central point is obviously in exploring all the ways we find relief from the world’s troubles. We look to religion, we look to family, and we look to friends. We run away from those things that we perceive to be a negative influence on the world. All of these comforts are offered by Maggie’s cult, which — it must be remembered — was founded on prophecies of a dystopian future. Talk about irony.
Then again, Maggie herself seems to be a metaphor for something very different. Some characters take her mysticism at face value, others try to destroy her cult through logic, and the film doesn’t really side with either approach. She’s a living mystery that everyone’s trying to figure out, and the mystery is ultimately left unsolved at the film’s end. Maybe her identity was never an “either/or” problem to begin with, but something much stranger. Maybe there was never a solution to begin with. This character is so multi-faceted and the reactions to her character are so myriad that Maggie just might be a metaphor for life itself.
Also, I should mention that Peter spends his daylight hours as a substitute teacher for an elementary school class. This naturally leads to a scene in which teachers use a kind of pre-arranged hand signal, prompting the kids to quickly go silent. The parallel to cult rituals is obvious, and it speaks a great volume about how we’re conditioned from an early age to respect authority.
Speaking of which, I should mention Abigail Pritchett, played by newcomer Avery Pohl. Abby is one of Peter’s students, and it’s immediately obvious that she has some kind of undefined disorder (Narcolepsy, maybe? Some kind of autism?). There’s also Carol Briggs (Davenia McFadden), a woman who nervously checks her hotel room for bugs during her introductory scene. How could these two characters possibly be relevant to the overall plot? You’ll just have to trust me when I say that all the storylines dovetail masterfully.
But enough of my constant harping about how great the script is. What about the visuals? Well, the cinematography and editing in this film are both exquisite as well. Every close-up, extreme close-up, and shot/reverse shot was strategically and ideally placed to keep the tension high and the running time brisk. Of course, it bears mentioning that the score was close to non-existent, which certainly helped raise the suspense. Then again, the movie also included a sing-along of “Dreams” by The Cranberries, which actually worked as a nice release valve while maintaining the quotient of what-the-fuckery.
Sound of My Voice is an incredible film. The visuals are all masterful, the screenplay is wonderfully structured, and the actors all put in solid performances. Brit Marling in particular does a jaw-dropping job at delivering all the contradictions, mysteries, and charms of her character. Though I do have a couple of problems with the protagonist’s voice-over introduction, it’s otherwise a superbly crafted film that offers a ton of food for thought.
If you’re tired of big, loud, dumb summer blockbusters and in the mood for something more intellectual, this is your ticket.