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.