(2011)3Perry SeibertZal Batmanglij's feature debut, Sound of My Voice, draws you in right from the start. A couple, Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius), follow written directions to a strange house, where they meet a man who tells them to shower thoroughly and change into white robes. After they complete these tasks, they are blindfolded, placed in a minivan with an Asian couple who are both blindfolded as well, and driven to another house, where they are led into a basement and asked to perform an elaborate handshake with a middle-aged man (Richard Wharton). After passing this test, they are introduced to Maggie (Brit Marling), the pretty, enigmatic leader of this group, who reveals she has traveled back in time from the year 2054. This entire opening section of the film is creepy, mysterious, and thoroughly engaging.
The movie maintains that tone for a good two-thirds of its running time, especially as the mystery around Maggie deepens -- is she really from the future as she claims, here to help people survive a coming catastrophe, or is she a dangerously manipulative sociopath creating a small army of followers? Along the way, we also learn that Peter and Lorna are would-be documentary filmmakers trying to expose the cult.
The main theme of the movie slowly reveals itself, and that turns out to be faith. Peter is a rationalist cynic, but he's suffered emotional trauma that he's never fully dealt with. He begins to find some meaning and sense of self as he spends more time in the cult, leading to a fracture in his relationship with Lorna. Eventually, Maggie asks Peter to do something that goes against his principles.
One of the best aspects of Sound of My Voice is its ambiguity, since the screenplay -- co-written by the director and Marling -- withholds information from the audience in ways that intrigue rather than irritate us. As the meaning of unexplained plot details -- like a woman we've never seen before scouring a hotel room for electronic surveillance equipment, or the behavioral issues affecting one of Peter's students -- are revealed, the movie begins to promise so much more than it eventually delivers.
Ambiguous endings can be remarkably profound, but they're notoriously difficult to fashion. Audiences will generally accept not knowing what's going to happen to the characters after a movie ends, but you have to offer a pretty clear understanding of what has happened to them up until that point. Sound of My Voice comes tantalizingly close to pulling off this trick, but the ending the filmmakers have chosen only resolves one of the character arcs and conflicts in the movie, a fact that can't help but let the audience down. During one of their fights, Peter accuses Lorna of not finishing what she starts, and ironically that is exactly the single worst thing that can be said about the picture itself.
As debut movies go, though, Sound of My Voice is one to be proud of. Batmanglij effortlessly creates suspense with a bare minimum of sets -- half the film takes place in an unfurnished basement with a couple of lamps - and he coaxes solid performances out of everyone in the cast. Denham does a commendable job of portraying how Peter is incrementally seduced into the cult, but it's Marling who steals the film. She can project an ethereal quality, almost like an otherworldliness, in her softer moments, only to turn on a dime into a controlling, judgmental leader -- best exemplified in a scene in which, after being questioned a little too pointedly, she excommunicates one of her followers. She makes Maggie real, yet never loses the quicksilver quality at the character's center.
Altogether, it's a promising debut that calls to mind other indie critical darlings like Primer and Martha Marcy May Marlene. While it doesn't quite measure up to those movies, it's more than respectable enough to make audiences eagerly anticipate what Batmanglij will do next.
Peter and Lorna endure a rigorous preparation in order to infiltrate a highly secretive cult and confront its mysterious leader, Maggie (Brit Marling), who claims to be a visitor from the future on a crucial mission.