Film Review: Sound of My Voice

A riveting, deftly crafted sci-fi thriller that plays mind games with the viewer.

Taut and unnerving, Sound of My Voice is shaped by a classic irony dear to Sophocles and Hollywood: A character gets ensnared by precisely what he'd hoped to avoid. A familiar setup, but this sci-fi thriller serves it well with superb acting, a production that outwits its skimpy budget, and a wowzer of an ending that dares you to remain a skeptic and invites a sequel.
Zal Batmanglij makes his helming debut with a script he co-wrote with producer and star Brit Marling. The multifaceted Marling also co-wrote and starred in last year's Another Earth, a sci-fi tale that posits a twin planet housing carbon copies of ourselves. In Sound, Marling confirms yet again her double-threat talent. Mixing brains and beauty, she conveys a particular authority onscreen because the stories come from her own gut.

Documentary filmmaking couple Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) infiltrate a cult in California's San Fernando Valley that's spearheaded by the mysterious, alluring Maggie (Marling) a twenty-something woman who claims to be a time traveler from the year 2054. Striking a creepy note that's sustained throughout—aided by a tingly score by the director’s brother Rostam, a member of the pop group Vampire Weekend—the film kicks off with a quick-cut montage of Peter and Lorna as they are blindfolded and driven to an unknown destination where they strip, wash and don white robes. An elaborate, extended handshake (already getting posted on the Internet) permits them to join the worshipful group of initiates seated in a circle round their leader.

Dressed in a flowing white robe, Maggie is rather sickly as cult figures go; her survival depends on surplus oxygen, hydroponic food, and—a stomach-turning detail—the blood of her followers. In including the nitty-gritty of time travel—like considering the effect of microorganisms—the filmmakers playfully take it literally. Nor are they averse to the yuck factor: Maggie's flock literally regurgitates a “bad” apple as a symbolic liberation from their old, toxic way of life.

The 84-minute film unfolds in numbered segments rather like chapters in a novel. Each installment raises new questions and kicks up the suspense as Peter—portal to the story—gets drawn into Maggie's game, even as he dismisses her as “a con artist” and the cult members as “weak suckers, looking for meaning.” In one potent confrontation in the basement where Maggie conducts business, she targets Peter (who has swallowed a mini-camera!) and manages to crack his armor, which may be concealing a past of abuse. Sensing Peter's growing fascination with Maggie, Lorna wants out, while Peter, marking time with his job as a substitute teacher, is desperate to make it as a filmmaker. Peter's priorities are finally put to the test in a climactic scene in the La Brea tar pits. Woven into the action are a couple of subplots involving an investigator from the Justice Department who's picked up Maggie's spore, and a freaky eight-year-old female student of Peter's who may herself be allergic to 2012.

Sound of My Voice clicks along with a killer narrative thrust that promises much for director Batmanglij. He's contrived a way-cool manner of handling flashbacks: Key moments from Peter's and Lorna's past speed by in abrupt, brief scenes in grainy black-and-white. The film's single misstep: At one point Peter and Lorna spell out the plot, commenting that they wanted to make movies about a cult but now risk getting sucked in. The cue feels like a last-minute add-on, a sudden loss of confidence in audience smarts. But the film's ace in the hole is to induce viewers to wonder if Maggie might just be for real. In this intelligent, must-see film, Marling and Batmanglij also raise the ante by tapping into a widespread sense of isolation in the land, which impels the vulnerable to seek a surrogate family, even the bizarro one offered by Maggie and her ilk.