The first 20 minutes of Zal Batmanglij’s low budget debut are as unadorned as you can get — a pair of suburban garages, an empty house, and a carpeted basement with a lamp from IKEA — a textbook example of economical filmmaking. It’s also one of the more tense, claustrophobic and foreboding openings I’ve seen in a long time.
Peter and Lorna (Christopher Denham and Nicole Vicius) are a pair of would-be documentary filmmakers who have gone undercover to join and expose a mysterious cult in California’s San Gabriel Valley. Forced to shower then dress in hospital gowns, they are bound and hooded before being transported to Maggie (Brit Marling, who co-wrote the script), the group’s enigmatic leader.
Once the two, alongside a half dozen other new disciples, are accepted into her inner sanctum, Maggie reveals that she is from the future — 2054, to be precise. She doesn’t know how she was sent to the past but she has decided to prepare her followers for the civil war she claims is coming. This includes fasting, strange tests of trust, and intense emotional confessions. At first, Peter, wrestling with childhood issues connected to his mother’s involvement with a cult, is determined to unmask the charismatic Maggie as a sham. But as she bores into his head, his resolve weakens and his relationship with Lorna frays.
For much of Sound of My Voice, the audience shares Peter and Lorna’s skepticism about Maggie’s claims. A clever gag where one newbie asks her to sing a song from the future only cements that doubt. But Marling is so committed to her role, so unshakeable in her convictions that you begin to wonder if Batmanglij is setting you up for something more complicated and sinister. There’s the troubled young girl in Peter’s class who builds strangely elaborate sculptures out of black Legos. And there’s a woman handling secrets documents and checking her hotel room for hidden surveillance equipment. How do they connect with Maggie’s clandestine group?
Thank goodness director Batmanglij avoided the temptation to go the “found-footage” or jerky handheld way of storytelling. The film follows a traditional narrative path, effectively building mood and slow-simmering suspense through its first two acts. It’s a little pretentious at times, and there are missteps along the way (Peter and Lorna’s backstories are handled clumsily) and Maggie’s Esalen-style platitudes start to grow stale after a while, but a constant sense of creepy-crawly discomfort and well-timed blackouts (that serve as chapters) keep things moving along, like a page-turning thriller.
It’s only in the final reel that things get muddled and unconvincing. There’s a spark of an interesting idea in Batmanglij and Marling’s ambiguous ending, but as executed it only reveals their dramatic shortcomings. Peter and Maggie’s fate ends up being more of a shrug-inducing twist than a psychologically revealing moment. As last year’s Martha Marcy May Marlene (another cult thriller with a superior cast) demonstrated, there a difference between an uncertain ending and an uncertain lead character.
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