Sound of my Voice (2012)

23 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I love these science-fiction thrillers that keep the sci-fi elements in obscurity (for the most part, at least). “Sound of my Voice” is an example of this type. The basic idea is that there’s an underground cult led by a woman who claims to be from the future. So OK, you have the time-travel element that is talked about a lot in this film. Is it true or false?

And to be honest, I can’t exactly write about “Sound of my Voice” without mentioning a film that was released the same year as this—another indie film that also had to do with the possibility of time-travel, titled “Safety Not Guaranteed.” That film was more of a lighthearted, upbeat comedy-drama—the exact opposite of “Sound of my Voice,” which is grim, more mysterious, and even kind of creepy.

But it’s still as fascinating.

“Sound of my Voice” was co-written by writer-actress Brit Marling, who also co-wrote and starred in the terrific sci-fi/drama (if you will) “Another Earth.” The best thing about both films is that they use their sci-fi elements to serve the human stories that are the main focus.

The plot involves a Los Angeles couple—aspiring filmmakers Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius)—as they decide to make a documentary that exposes a mysterious cult. In order to do so, they have to join the cult. On the first night, they are blindfolded and led to a basement to join cult members, dressed in white robes. And they learn the cult’s complicated secret handshake as well.

The cult’s leader, also dressed in white, is Maggie (Marling). She comes into the room, and the cult just bows down to her, as if she was their Savior. When she tells the new members her story, those who buy it sort of see why the others see her like this. She announces that she is from the year 2054 and she started this cult to prepare them for a civil war. She seems very serious about this, and her voice is quite comforting, so people will listen to her—even Peter, who at first seems cynical about all of this. Among her peculiarities—she carries an oxygen tank because she’s allergic to our air; because present-day toxins are easy for her to catch, so she eats organic food grown by one of her followers; and her methods are most unusual. For example, she gets the cult members to purge themselves by vomiting. Peter won’t do it (though he says instead that he can’t do it), and so Maggie does some pushing to get him to do it. She even manages to touch at something so personal from his past that he ultimately and successfully hurls.

By the way, if you’re wondering how Peter and Lorna are getting their footage, I forgot to mention—Peter has a hidden camera in his eyeglasses, and he also swallowed a small radio transmitter to record audio.

Anyway, who is this woman Maggie? Is she telling the truth? Is she a con artist, like Peter believes? Even he is starting to have doubts about what he thought before, which is actually starting to bring concerns from Lorna, as motivations for joining the group are starting to feel unsure.

The odd thing about “Sound of my Voice” is that Maggie’s stories of her “appearance in the present-day” and her “future-day” aren’t as convincing because time-travel is not the only explanation. She says she woke up in an apartment, with no memory and a tattoo that made her realize who she was—there’s some kind of symbol tattooed to her ankle, and the number “54,” which she “recollects” as being the sign of the traveler from 2054. And how about when the cult asks her to sing a song from the future? “We want to hear the future,” someone says. She chooses a popular song from the Cranberrys, saying it was covered by a future artist. I don’t want to give too much away, but “Sound of my Voice” has this odd tendency to keep Maggie talking about her back-story without ever declaring if it’s true.

“Sound of my Voice” has a consistently-unnerving tone as it progresses, and manages to tell an effective commentary on changing lives and beliefs or disbeliefs with tense results. It also helps to have solid characterizations to tell a more human story than you might expect. Peter is classified as a cynic to this cult’s existence, but he’s a nice guy and grade-school teacher, and honestly, who wouldn’t feel this way at first? But he also has a tragic past (his mother died on the night before his 13th birthday) that Maggie is able to play to with the “sound of her voice” (if you will) and this starts to open something in his mind. It’s almost as if he’s starting to be like the brainwashed followers she has led. Christopher Denham delivers a great performance, in a role that could have been thankless. He nails it.

Nicole Vicius is also good as the girlfriend who too is fascinated by what goes on in this cult, but she still remembers why she and Peter joined the group and is starting to question Peter’s sanity, even though he insists that he still believes it’s all a con. But it really comes down to Brit Marling, whose ethereal performance as Maggie brings so many fascinating details to wonder about with this character. She’s perfect here. (And I look forward to another one of her screenplays as well.)

The final act gets more suspenseful, as it moves into a plot development, which I won’t give away, that is both eerie and unusual. But I will say this—I mentioned that nothing is truly declared in this plot, so don’t be surprised if the ending leaves things unresolved. Like “Another Earth,” it’s an ending that leaves things open for interpretation. The mystery is still there, but there’s one little bit that they end on that brings about a whole other part of the mystery to read into. “Sound of my Voice” is an intriguing sci-fi thriller that keeps you guessing all the way through, and still has you guessing after it’s over.

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