Sound of My Voice (2011)

Rated R. Our ratings: V -1; L -3; S/N -2. Running time: 1 hour 25 min

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but
test the spirits to see whether they are
from God; for many false prophets have
gone out into the world.
1 John 4:1

Cult leader Maggie seems to be able to search Peter’s soul.

© 2011 Fox Searchlight Pictures

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5

Brit Marling, whose debut Another Earth was one of the more intriguing films of 2011, has succeeded again with her newest release, which she co-wrote with Zal Batmanglij, her friend since college days and, with this film, a first-time director. Sound of My Voice is a semi science fiction work—I write “semi” because the claim of the central character to have come from the future is made with no reference to gadgetry or supporting scientific theory. By the end the film will leave viewers with the unresolved tension between believing what they have seen and what they “know” what “is.” “Is she, or isn’t she a fraud?” is the question that would-be documentarians Peter Aitken (Christopher Denham) and Lorna Michaelson (Nicole Vicius) are left to wrestle with, both of them beginning their efforts to infiltrate the secretive cult believing firmly that the leader Maggie (Brit Marling) is not only a fake, but, in the light of Jim Jones, a dangerous one because of her hold over the minds and wills of her followers. In ten short, cliff-hanging chapters, we learn just as much as they learn about Maggie, no less and no more, which adds to the tension and sense of unease.

Maggie lives in a basement of a house kept secret from everyone. Not only are members met at another location where they are blindfolded and dressed in skimpy hospital robes, they must also submit to a strip search and shower before admitted to the assembly room. In one scene the suspense is generated by Peter’s having swallowed a tiny waterproof camera in order to smuggle it in so that he can surreptitiously record the meeting—after all, what kind of a documentary would have no film clips?

Maggie, who must constantly be hooked up to a breathing apparatus because of alleged over-sensitivity to pathogens in 2012, tells the story of her arrival from the year 2054. It begins with her regaining consciousness submerged in a three-quarters-filled bathtub and her wandering the streets of L.A. Wrapped in a bed sheet. She has no memory of how or why she is here, but once the first cult member finds and takes her in, she begins to attract others with her story of an impending civil war that will devastate society. She must be kept in isolation for her allergies—even her food has to be carefully grown hydroponicly by her followers, which adds to the mystery of her claim.

Peter and Lorna dismiss all of this, especially when one cult member questions Maggie’s veracity about a song she claims is from the future. When he almost apologetically points out that this was actually from the 1990s, Maggie lamely says that it was popular in her time, and then has him ejected from the group Soon therafter Maggie, who exudes such great authority and sincerity, begins to dissolve the skepticism of one of the pair, which leads to the other’s rebellion and testing their bond of loyalty.

Maggie demands that Peter, who has been working days as a teacher of young girls, bring to her the one named Abigail Pritchett (Avery Kristen Poh). Alarmed, Peter resists, arguing against her and fearfully wondering why she wants to meet the girl. When she says that Abigail is her mother, he is surprised, reluctantly agreeing, especially when Maggie threatens him with expulsion if he does not do so. He insists on setting the terms for the rendezvous—that he will not bring her to the basement, but will arrange a meeting when he takes the children on a class trip. This means Maggie must wear an oxygen mask to protect her from the toxins of 2012, but she consents. His plan, so fraught with danger for the little girl, troubles Lorna even more. Especially when she is contacted by a Federal agent tracking Maggie who informs her of criminal charges levied against her in another city.

The suspenseful and puzzling climax of the film will leave you wrestling with the “truth” about Maggie, and of what we see and believe. The latter stems from the last time that we see the elaborate greeting with dexterous right hands used by the cult. If you like to have your films end with every loose end neatly tied up, this will not be one for you. On the other hand, if you relish the rare challenge of a film that tugs your mind in opposite directions—between belief in what must be that is challenged by evidence to the contrary, you will relish the experience. This is a film that should be seen with at least one companion with whom you can explore your reactions and feelings after the credits fade away.

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