'Sound of My Voice' Review

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Fox Searchlight

'Sound of My Voice' is a testament to the ingenuity of independent film.  Here is a movie that builds a massive science-fiction world out of literally nothing. It features dangerous cults, government conspiracies, mysteriously gifted children, and possible time travelers -- and almost the entire thing takes place in a drab, suburban basement.  Director/co-writer Zal Batmanglij and star/co-writer Brit Marling likely couldn't afford to mount all the futuristic stuff they imagined onscreen so they built an ingenious work around: they show you almost none of it and use the sense of mystery to reinforce the film's central themes.

This may seem like a movie about the future.  But it's really a movie about belief.

It begins with one of its quietest sequences (most of the rest of the movie is spent watching people in conversation).  A young couple, Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius), drive up to an unassuming house on an unassuming street.  They enter and are told to shower and change.  Then they're blindfolded, handcuffed, and led into a van that drives them to another house, where they're led down into that aforementioned basement.  One incredibly complicated secret handshake later, they're welcomed into a mysterious cult and introduced to its even-more-mysterious leader Maggie (Marling), a 24-year-old woman dressed all in white who claims to be from a dark future.  Maggie says the end is near, and she's come back through time to warn and protect a select group of people from the coming apocalypse.

Peter and Lorna are gradually accepted into Maggie's flock, but they're not really there for spiritual enlightenment: Peter's mother died because of her life inside a New Age cult, so he's determined to bring down Maggie's group by secretly filming their activities for a documentary.  The same background that inspires Peter to destroy this cult, though, may also make him susceptible to its message -- and it sure looks like the seductively charismatic Maggie seems to be getting under his skin with her warm demeanor and intense therapy sessions.

Maggie may or may not be who she says she is.  She describes some details of her future, but provides no corroborating evidence.  Similarly, other characters reveal profound secrets about their pasts to Maggie, then later deny they were telling the truth.  Who and what do we believe?  Batmanglij and Marling -- even better as a writer and actress here than in last year's 'Another Earth' -- pepper the narrative with clues, but few concrete truths.  Some people folks may reject 'Sound of My Voice' as a result It wouldn't surprise me at all if some viewers complain the film is too ambiguous, with a narrative that doesn't conclude so much as it simply stops.

That ambiguity, though, is the whole point.  It puts us in the same position as Peter and Lorna: confused, questioning, trying to figure out what we believe.  As a result, 'Sound of My Voice' is a sort of a cinematic Rorschach test on the subject of faith.  Two people sitting next to each other in the theater could walk away with two totally different interpretations of the events both just witnessed.  The difference?  One had faith and the other didn't.

A colleague I spoke with the morning after the screening of 'Sound of My Voice' felt like Batmanglij and Marling didn't give him enough information to fully wrap his head around the film's mysteries.  They provided the tools to construct a building, he said, but left out a few of the most important nuts and bolts.  I disagree.  I think Batmanglij and Marling have provided the tools to construct two entirely different buildings, and then sat back to see which of the two viewers will choose to make.  They've made a film about faith, and in doing so, have put a great deal of faith in the intelligence of their audience.  Let's hope audiences reciprocate in kind.

Review RatingMatt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’

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