Run Time: 87 minutes
There’s something lately about psychological cult movies. A few months ago, I saw Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, which starred Elizabeth Olsen as a woman of many mysteries (and names) who fails to adapt to her sister’s affluent lifestyle after spending several months with a cult in the Catskill Mountains. Recently, I watched Snowtown, which showed an Aussie family tempted into murderous acts by Australia’s worst serial killer John Bunting. Both share a key theme: humanity’s unfortunate knack to conform, even when moral are on the line.
Now, here comes Zal Batmanglij’s Sound of My Voice, and it might just be the best of the three. Unlike Martha, I don’t feel as toyed with; unlike Snowtown, I haven’t been smothered by a low-key tone. Sound of My Voice does toy and is full of low-key moments, but its style and pace are very assured. On a shoe-string budget, the film focuses on its story and characters, and squeezes out the suspense and complexity to reach a confident and concise 90-minute psychological drama.
It does what good movies do: it sucks you into its world, holds you, and – at the end – finally spits you back out. It’s a movie that asks more questions than it answers, but Batmanglij has thought it through. Even if most of the details are withheld from us, we don’t feel they lead to loose ends. These mysteries run deep.
Like I was saying, this is a cult movie. In these types of movies, it works best when the protagonists are outsiders. Oh no, I had my fish-out-of-water rant the other day with my review of Damsels in Distress, so search for an elaboration there. Anyway, these outsiders are boyfriend Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius), who, in an opening scene that dramatizes what you may think is a kidnapping, are blindfolded and taken to a California tract house where they are escorted down into the basement and introduced to a group of people dressed in white robes.
Already, we want to ask questions. Expect those eyebrows to raise at the arrival of Maggie (Another Earth’s Brit Marling), who – in a devastating monologue – claims she is from 2054 (I should mention the film resides in 2010). Absurd right? Peter and Lorna seem to think so, but after a few days with this circle their convictions are tested. Ours are too.
The problem is Peter and Lorna are documentary filmmakers on an investigative journalism expedition to cover the phenomenon of cults. Thankfully, cameras are verboten at this cult, so we don’t have to moan about another Blair Witch wannabe. Nope, this is pure drama, and it’s nice to experience that. In so doing, Batmanglij relies heavily on dialogue, but his words carry a pulse and are particularly stirring under Marling’s delivery, who proves she can be both attractive and deeply enigmatic. She knows how to handle pauses.
Regarding its themes, it’s the familiar tableau of fears, loyalty, and morality. But Batmanglij situates this all within a domestic setting, combining mysticism with banality. He shows that anything can be stirring behind your neighbor’s garage. In this case, there’s a greenhouse for food, which one of the cultists explains is to compensate for Maggie’s alleged intolerance of the world’s commodities.
Sound of My Voice – like its title suggests – is a movie you just want to close your eyes and listen to. You don’t watch this film, you feel it. Its pace and texture enraptured me. There’s a little more to the plot, but I shouldn’t say anymore. The film reveals very little, so I shouldn’t spoil those few revelations.
I will add that the conclusion, which was praised about at Sundance, left me cold. Some critics love its do-it-yourself approach, but the whole film is of that nature so the finale could have filled at least a few of the blanks in. Too many of the narrative seams are left open. Batmanglij says Sound of My Voice is the first of a trilogy, and I hope it is. I sense, in all its darkness and wonder, Sound of My Voice’s lips haven’t finished speaking.