DVD Release Date: October 2, 2012
Theatrical Release Date: April 27, 2012 (limited); June 1, 2012 (wider)
Rating: R (for strong language including some sexual references, and brief drug use)
Genre: Thriller
Run Time: 85 min.
Director: Zal Batmanglij
Actors: Christopher Denham, Nicole Vicius, Brit Marling, Avery Pohl

Sound of My Voice is about the mesmerizing power of a cult-leader over a small group of dumbstruck converts, and it serves as a pretty good metaphor for the hold its co-writer/star Brit Marling seems to wield over film critics and indie film aficionados. After two movies so far I can certainly understand her allure but remain one of the few still not drinking the Kool-Aid.

Marling became the latest indie It Girl after the debut of Another Earth at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, which she also co-wrote and starred in, and now her follow-up, Sound of My Voice, has received the same acclaim both at Sundance and the Rotten Tomatoes collective. Each boasts the same strengths—a fascinating narrative hook and the enigmatic Marling—but also the same weakness: once you get past the surface of the two strengths, there’s nothing “there” there.

If anything, Marling’s slightly regressed from her previous film; that, at least, had the virtue of an original premise. This one, while also interesting, is something we’ve seen before albeit with a sci-fi twist: Maggie (played by Marling), the would-be cult leader, claims she’s from about 50 years in the future. She’s come back to warn those with ears to hear about the impending apocalypse and how to survive it. A young investigative journalist and his girlfriend (Christopher Denham and Nicole Vicius) attempt to infiltrate the group and expose Maggie as a hoax before she requires her disciples to do anything too crazy like, say, a mass suicide.

Intrigued? I was. Then, like Another Earth, it takes that intriguing concept and does nothing with it. Or more accurately, the script fleshes it out with very generic story beats we’ve seen before, peddling a rather flaky form of pop psychology way too earnestly—one that relies on tired “mommy and daddy issues” and Big Brother fears to manipulate and brainwash—and, worst of all, inexplicably undercuts the very atmosphere of frightening control it strives to create.

The first two missteps go hand-in-hand. Maggie’s spiritual practices and prophetic teachings are nothing more than insipid New Age-y nonsense, talking and thinking in vagaries that only the most impressionable would perceive as deep and mysterious. This Krishna-esque pablum is hard to take seriously, as is the arc of the cynical journalist slowly falling under Maggie’s spell. That journalist is our way into the story, and to be an effective film we have to be as seduced as he is. We’re not, but co-writer/director Zal Batmanglij’s humorless style sure expects us to be. With a gravely ominous tone, Marling andBatmanglij think we’ll buy into it all (or at least find it plausible)—an assumption that’s as pretentious as the completely pointless chapter numbers that segment each sequence.

Then there’s the other problem: Maggie and her henchmen are way too toothless to be intimidating. Sure, they act intimidating, but behind the weight of her unblinking transcendental gaze and their domineering glares there’s no real threat to exert control. If you don’t do the weird things they ask they’ll, what, kick you out? Oh, the horror. You better vomit on cue cuz, you know, everyone else is doing it. It’s coercion by nothing more than peer pressure, where the most lethal weapon is name-calling. 

It’s not like each person or their loved ones’ lives are threatened if they don’t do as they’re told; the most dire consequence is they might be embarrassed. They’re not even trapped on a closed commune; members live their normal daily lives out in the open and voluntarily come to night meetings. I’m willing to suspend disbelief and buy that the most highly impressionable people would cripple in that environment, but as an effective tension-builder for a movie it’s completely lame.

The only way this works as credible is if Maggie comes off as that hypnotic of a leader. Marling, as an actress, has the presence to pull it off. As a writer, she’s given herself little to work with. She starts with a strong core attribute—her alleged status as a person from the future—that gives her a potential inherent authority, one that can’t be questioned; she should know enough to be convincing. Instead, Maggie dances around questions about the future and the past that should be easy softballs (or, at least, lies), but her evasion only serves to foster skepticism (in us) rather than squelch it.

More than likely, Marling’s banking on the same thing she did in her last movie: a climactic punch that’s supposed to make you question all that you’ve just watched and have it resonate in a whole new way. The problem is that there’s nothing substantial to look back on or rethink, no compelling philosophies or ideas, no insights or provocations. If Maggie had anything meaningful to say along the way, the implications of the end would’ve had an impact. But since all she ever spoke was ethereal hokum then what we’re left with is a clever punctuation and nothing more.

The shortcomings in Sound of My Voice are best exemplified by comparisons to two recent indie pics that broached similar concepts in thought-provoking ways: Martha Marcy May Marlene (the seductive power of a cult leader) and Take Shelter (are the claims of a troubled person crazy or for real?). Both films told fairly simple stories that dove deep into characters and ideas. Sound of My Voice does the exact opposite, poorly.

Nevertheless, Brit Marling remains a filmmaking voice to be reckoned with. Her potential is clearly there, and her ability to have two different directors essentially do her artistic bidding is all but unheard of; I don’t think I’ve ever seen a screenwriter/non-director attributed auteur qualities as she has been and actually deserve the classification. But right now her movies still feel like senior thesis projects, and unless she starts surrounding herself with collaborators that challenge her rather than follow her, Marling’s work will never deserve to be elevated beyond cult status.

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol Content: Cocaine is snorted in one scene.
  • Language/Profanity: Variations of the s-word. The f-word is used once. The c-word is used once (the feminine sexual epithet). Another c-word referring to semen.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity: Close-ups of a woman while she showers, with no explicit nudity. Nude woman out of a shower seen in full body profile, with breasts covered by long hair. Man’s head is put under a woman’s shirt during a passionate scene. Passionate kissing. Men do pushups while nude.
  • Violence: A group of people self-induce vomiting.