Review: Sound of My Voice (2012)

Sound of My Voice is a lifeless movie about a cult. It gives the impression that the filmmakers know nothing about what causes a person to join a cult or what the qualities are that attract people to a cult leader. It’s infuriatingly low-key, a fatal mistake for a movie about such sinister subject matter.

Directed by first time feature filmmaker Zal Batmanglij and written by Another Earth star Brit Marling, Sound of My Voice follows Peter Aitken (Christopher Denham) and Lorna Michaelson (Nicole Vicius), two prospective investigative journalists who infiltrate a cult centred around Maggie (Marling), a woman supposedly from the year 2054.

Maggie tells her followers that in the future there is a civil war and people turn back to the earth to survive. She speaks of the need to band together for safety, but all the details she gives are vague and silly. When asked by one member to sing a song from the future, she ends up singing a song that was popular in the mid-90s. Is Maggie really from the future or is she a devious manipulator from the present like all other cult leaders?

While the filmmakers attempt to make this the central question of the film, the real question ends up being “Why would anyone be attracted to Maggie’s cult?”

As played by Marling, Maggie is a lifeless character. She speaks in a disaffected monotone, and her lessons are vague New-Age fluff. When she tries to assert her authority, instead of seeming menacing, she just seems irritated. There’s nothing charismatic about Maggie, nothing that distinguishes her from a pseudo-spiritual yoga teacher. Cult leaders control their followers through something concrete. They have grand, definite answers to life’s mysteries, powerful charisma, or a psychosexual hold on their followers. Maggie has none of these.

There’s one effective scene in the film, when Maggie forces her followers to eat an apple, and then regurgitate it. The apple represents logic, and she wants her followers to reject the logic that stops them from grasping the truth of her claims. The cleverness of the scene is that by making followers vomit as a sign of dedication, once one person vomits, everyone does. Just see if you can hold it back next time everyone around you starts vomiting. If only the rest of the scenes could have had such an understanding of how manipulation works, of how cults operate and trick you into exposing your weaknesses for their leaders’ exploitation.

The investigative journalist aspect of the film proves to be a plot device, as neither Aitken nor Michaelson have any experience as journalists, or any real outlet for their exposé. It is merely a means of getting them to join the cult while remaining at a critical distance, which can be gradually eroded.

The only arc of any interest in the film belongs to Peter, who begins the film on a crusade to expose the evils of this cult, and gradually gets pulled into Maggie’s sway. Denham sells this transformation, even if Marling never proves to be appealing enough to entice Peter, let alone the audience.

The film is divided into segments, with many of these segments never allowed room to breathe, while others offering long, quasi-philosophical ramblings from Marling’s Maggie. I don’t want to call Marling egotistical, but to write a film about a hypnotically attractive cult leader and then to play the part yourself speaks of an inflated ego.

The entire film hinges on Marling’s Maggie, and her understatedness ultimately kills this film. I know she’s the new darling of the indie film community, but if she continues to centre her films around her perplexing and lifeless performances, than her films will continue to suffer.

There’s a neat idea lurking underneath all the meandering and vagueness and muddled ambiguity here. Unfortunately, Sound of My Voice is dead on arrival the moment Marling appears on screen.

Sound of My Voice (2012)

Directed by Zal Batmanglij; written by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij; starring Christopher Denhamn, Lorna Michaelson, Brit Marling, Davenia McFadden, Kandice Stroh, and Richard Wharton.

4 out of 10