Sound Of My Voice will inevitably be compared to last year’s brilliant Martha Marcy May Marlene. The good news is that Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij’s film is almost equally brilliant in very different ways. While Sean Durkin’s 2011 masterpiece was concerned with the psychological repercussions of the cult experience, Batmanglij’s film is more interested in the mechanics of what we believe in and why we believe it. So even though both films are about about “cults” (to some extent), and they each contain moments of harrowing suspense, that’s pretty much where the comparisons end.
Christopher Denham and Nicole Vicius play east-side LA couple Peter Aitken and Lorna Michaelson, who are already embroiled in their investigation into Maggie’s cult at the beginning of the film. Peter is a substitute teacher and Lorna is an ex-party girl and the sole basis for their infiltration of this world, aside from their half-baked justifications, seems to be their boredom. One of the many things the film gets right is the authenticity of this couple. They’re so spot-on that I wanted to slap Peter every bit as much as I want to slap real hipsters in real life. This is not to the detriment of the film, it just knows its characters and its smart enough to immediately build outward from those archetypes. Soon enough, it pulls off the amazing feat of making you care about them and their fate. In fact, I wound up caring much so that an extended set piece I’ll refer to only as “the apple scene” had me in absolute knots.
Thematically speaking, these two protagonists are about as perfect as it gets when it comes to making what turns out to be the ultimate statement of Sound Of My Voice. They’re the ultimate non-believers. Even if parts of them secretly want to believe, their rigid self definitions refuse to allow any portion of that urge a purchase within their consciousness. It’s as if modern hipster malaise and the search of a signifier beyond their twee existence have conspired them to stare into the abyss. But… is it an abyss?
Maggie, as played by Brit Marling, is the perfect luminous figure around which to construct a cult of personality. Not only is she beautiful, she’s menacing. And you want her approval. And her story about being from the future is, of course, totally full of holes. But then again, isn’t everything we believe in full of holes? Not just religion, but everything? That’s the nature of faith, overlooking a lack of proof. And it’s something the film expertly explores. The members of Maggie’s cult are perfectly designed to embody all angles of that argument, with Peter and Lorna pitched as opposing prongs on either side of the fence.
This is a film of small moments that mean everything. And the scope is positively miniature in relation to most films. The apple scene I referred to earlier? It’s not really a set piece in the traditional sense. It’s pretty much just people talking in a room. But it sure feels like one. To talk too much about this film ahead of time is to spoil its sublime, almost spiritual effect. And its capacity to send shivers down your spine. Perhaps that’s the film’s slight flaw – that it’s delicacy is as much a weakness as it is a strength. Interestingly enough, it’s strong enough to withstand heavy scrutiny and repeat viewings – I just feel that the initial experience with it should be as virginal as possible.
Just know that it’s excellent. And that it has moments of terror that freaked me out more than 90% of the horror movies I watched last year. Why? Because I can totally see some of these moments playing out the exact same way in everyday life. I’ve already experienced the horror of losing people to belief systems I don’t agree with… and the deeper horror of wondering if they were right.