“Sound of My Voice” (2012)

20 May 2012

Sound of My Voice is riveting and well-acted but has such a thin, vague plot that by the end you walk out feeling ripped off. I can honestly say I watched every single scene with rapt attention; the three main characters are consistently watchable and believable; the dialogue is weird and feels true. But if the director got the trees right — almost every scene feels properly creepy and emotionally fraught — the forest turns out to be a disaster.

Unlike last fall’s brilliant Martha Marcy May Marlene, which told a twisting tale about how a young woman became absorbed into a cult (and ultimately left it, and remained terrified by it), Sound of My Voice isn’t primarily interested in the scary psychological appeal of cults, the insidious means by which leaders draw their adherents in, or the fantastical raisons d’être offered by their charismatic leaders for the group’s existence and future. Rather, this film devolves to an “is she or isn’t she?” question. Whereas many small films opt for so much plot that you want to teach them that less is more, this film made me realize that sometimes, less is less.

Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) are would-be documentary filmmakers who have made their way into a secretive cult oriented around a mysterious woman, Maggie (Brit Marling). Indeed, the film opens with an eminently creepy sequence of shots, wherein they are bound and blindfolded, stuffed into a van, and driven out to the cult’s secret location — where they are stripped of their street clothes, asked to shower and scrub themselves thoroughly, and dressed in hospital gowns before meeting Maggie. All of this is filmed so economically, and with such a fascinating combination of moodiness and dreariness to the sets, that you find yourself holding your breath, anticipating … what? A terrifying leader? That Peter and Lorna will be uncovered as frauds?

Peter has hooked up a spy-cam to his glasses to film the proceedings — like when Maggie tells the new recruits her story about being a time traveler from the future. But as the film moves along, it focuses ever more intently on the question of whether Maggie really believes her own story or has ulterior motives. Those questions just aren’t good enough, nor are the plot twists unusual enough to keep us guessing.

Directed by Zal Batmanglij, who also co-wrote the script with actor Marling, this film sustains your attention even through scenes that seem either odd (like when the germaphobic shut-in Maggie, who eats only foods grown in her own hydroponic growhouse, nevertheless opens a window and lights up a cigarette) or stereotyped (when one of the cult’s henchwomen whisks Lorna off to a woodsy area to teach her how to fire a gun — a scene we’ve seen in what, three or four recent films?).

Not to mention my biggest disappointment: the filmmakers only used the “sound of my voice” theme sloppily, dropped in absent-mindedly, rather than plumbed for more. What is it about the voices of these cult leaders, their ability to put concepts together for their adherents, to insinuate themselves like earworms into the brains of eager followers? That’s interesting. This film doesn’t touch the topic, nor does it convince me that Maggie’s voice or sentences will haunt me later. If they could create a movie poster as vivid and enticing as this one, I argue, surely they could have spent more time on the script.

As you can see, I walked out feeling frustrated — partly because the overall vision for this quasi-sci-fi film was ultimately so muddled by its emphasis on style and creepy anticipation; and partly because the final big plot twist makes the entire film look more like a 45-minute long X-Files episode rather than a smart, well-plotted full-length feature. So as much as I’d like to see writer/actor Marling as part of a new wave of women filmmakers, I’m going to table my enthusiasm for now … and at the risk of sounding bossy, suggest that she throw herself more completely into articulating a vision for a film before racing into production.

6 Responses to ““Sound of My Voice” (2012)”

  1. JB Says:

    I couldn’t agree more with you about this film’s failings. (Or with your noting of its terrific and sadly misleading poster art!) For me things really started to fall apart when Peter comes home after being asked to perform the kidnapping and the characters are suddenly freighted with way too much imposed and supposedly urgent psychological justifications (the absent mom, et cetera) for the actions the film is forcing them to perform for the sake of an underwhelming series of plot turns. But I suppose the film is something of a noble failure in that I can kind of imagine these young filmmakers starting from a place of real engagement and only gradually losing control of the project once certain voices (within the creative or without I couldn’t say) start demanding a more conventional but far less convincing narrative arc. By the end it’s as though someone suddenly wanted to make La Jetée and tried to retrofit the plot to accommodate their goals… Anyway, thanks for articulating many of my stray misgivings.

  2. Didion Says:

    That’s really interesting, JB — I guess I always assume with films as low-budget as this one that they had relative artistic freedom, but your analysis actually makes sense.

    When academics write stuff, we saddle ourselves with the question, “Why should anyone care about what I have to say?” (crippling, I can assure you) — which seems germane to the director’s question (according to Sydney Lumet), “What’s this picture about?” I feel as if that was the first time these young filmmakers fell down on the job — they forgot that central answer — and things fell apart from there.

    I love walking out of a film and, no matter how I felt about the characters or the tale, I can still say, “that film was tight.” It’s like a really hot musical performance, when the band is really together and really cooking. This was not that experience.

  3. JB Says:

    Yeah, I think the gatekeepers of even the most modest films (sometimes especially the most modest) can be demanding, and younger filmmakers desperate to get something, anything done are that much more susceptible to persuasion. But the faulty mechanics of Sound of My Voice could just as easily be a form of self-censorship, perhaps manifesting from a misguided desire to compromise intelligence for the sake of a recognizable arc. Or it could be that this film just needed another, stronger writer to come in and make good on what you and me at least regard as the premise’s promise, auteur theory be damned.

  4. Great review. I’m glad you so clearly articulated my problems with the film. I was frustrated too—almost angry—because I so enjoyed *Another Earth* and have high hopes for Marling. But it felt as if the writers didn’t take the time they needed to with the script. There were too many unanswered questions—why did the young girl play with black legos? what had the cult done with the other children? why were they forming a militia?—for viewers to go along with the final unanswered question. If we don’t trust that the writers know the answers to the other questions, then how can we trust that they know what their movie is really saying?

  5. […] get your indie films into comparatively mainstream theaters, for god’s sake (Another Earth, Sound of My Voice, and The East). Most of all, you feature great female leads and interesting stories that are […]

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