Structured oddly like a pulpy paperback that’s had pages ripped out of it, the sci-fi tinged mystery Sound of My Voice evokes feelings of last year’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, but with even more ambiguity and an even more accessible storyline. A rare bird, this film co-written by actress Brit Marling (fresh off her breakout role in last year’s Another Earth) and director Zal Batmanglij melds a time travel narrative with a filmmaking procedural with a DaVinci Code styled mystery filled with shadowy figures and asides that will come back later in the story. It’s definitely a film to mull over while watching it, but much like these very paperbacks, the underlying mystery doesn’t stick with the viewer very long.
Aspiring documentarian Peter (Christopher Denham) wants to expose a Southern California cult as a coven of con artists bilking people out of their money and potentially amassing arms to form a militia. He’s also, to some degree, out for closure in his own life thanks to losing his mother to a similar cult. Aided by his girlfriend and former celebutante Lorna (Nicole Vicius), they infiltrate a group overseen by the enigmatic Maggie (Marling), a woman who might be faking a laundry list of health problems to lay low from the law and who claims to be from the year 2054.
The movie gains most of its weight from Marling and Batmanglij’s sharp script which sticks to it’s structure pretty rigidly even if not all of the elements add up or go anywhere. Subplots involving an extremely bright child a shadowy secret agent of some sort are oddly predictable, but thanks to the story’s adamant adherence to ambiguity none of them really have a satisfying payoff outside of what the audience already suspects. It’s all very well staged and Batmanglij’s directorial style keeps things moving at a decent clip, but the story itself almost isn’t enough to keep the audience thinking about the numerous questions the narrative raises. It’s hard to talk about these problems without spoiling the film entirely, but it still manages to be hypnotically entertaining.
A lot of what will keep audiences interested are great performances from Marling and Denham, nether of whom seem to be entirely upfront with the people around them regarding their true motivation. Marling, much like one would think a cult leader would act, exudes menace and charity depending on what the situation requires, and much like a con artist she only tells people exactly what they want to hear and delivers it in an appropriate case-by-case manner. It’s a difficult balancing act to pull off.
She also gets an assist from Denham in their scenes together, as he has to play the eternal sceptic being led down a rabbit hole he just might like following. A tense and extended sequence where Maggie berates Peter, who’s hiding a deep secret from the rest of the cult, is the biggest highlight of the film. Their scenes together add a great deal of personal interest to something that could have been cold and distant.
In the end, Sound of My Voice might be slighter than its artistic pretensions let on, but it’s still a pretty fun film to watch. Of course, if you have a very low threshold for “artful ennui” when mixed with a pretty basic storyline, it will probably drive you up a wall. For those willing to go along with it, though, there’s some chills and entertainment to be had in equal amounts.
Cast: Brit Marling, Christopher Denham, Nicole Vicius
Directed by: Zal Batmanglij
Top image: A scene from Sound of My Voice. Courtesy Fox Searchlight Films.