At the age of 30 and just a few years into her Hollywood career, filmmaker and actress Brit Marling has already written herself two plum roles. She played a woman struggling with the consequences of a drunk-driving accident in last year’s Another Earth, and now returns, with a different tone entirely, as a serenely confident cult leader in Sound of My Voice.
Both films use a hint of science fiction to explore small-scale, indie-drama-style stories of people in crisis. Where Another Earth features an attempt to contact an exact duplicate of our planet, in Sound of My Voice, charismatic Maggie (Marling) claims to be from the year 2054, enticing followers in advance of a coming global disaster. Unlike the first film, this one feels rooted in actual human behavior, and reconciles that behavior with its sci-fi overtones.
Those overtones aren’t instantly visible. The movie opens by introducing Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius), amateur investigative journalists. Blindfolded en route to a suburban home, they join Maggie’s group undercover, hoping to make a documentary about… well, it’s not entirely clear. They want to expose Maggie as a fraud, though her plans for the group remain vague. Her philosophies sound like new-agey nonsense about surrendering control, making peace with oneself, rejecting accepted wisdom. It sounds a little creepy, but not particularly alarming.
Peter’s suspicion may be part of a personal vendetta; his mother committed suicide as a cult member when he was only a child. Lorna’s past provides possible motivation too, though less clearly: she’s an addict daughter of celebrities. These briefly noted details overwhelm what little else we learn about Peter and Lorna (as individuals or a romantic couple), so that they feel composed rather than organic, despite good performances by both Denham and Vicius. This kind of schematic yet clumsy earnestness characterizes both of Marling’s co-written screenplays. But her director here, Zal Batmanglij, holds a surer camera than Another Earth‘s Mike Cahill, and draws us into the group’s world with little film-school fuss.
Along with its less successful predecessor, Sound of My Voice also brings to mind the recent cult-centric indie Martha Marcy May Marlene. But while that film found its tension in its lead character’s state of mind, Batmanglij and Marling derive suspense from the cult itself. This group doesn’t require residence; once initiated, members are summoned periodically to the carpeted basement of a nondescript house, where Maggie leads meetings with the gentle voice and firm hand of a bizarre after-school program. Many of the film’s scenes on the outside are short and inconclusive (at least one key piece of information about the cult is provided to Lorna entirely offscreen, from a character of ambiguous origins), but the sequences in the cult basement are longer, unwavering and almost hypnotic.
Marling’s low-key charisma comes in handy for these scenes, where Maggie’s claims sound absurd, yet for certain members of the group, are also weirdly tantalizing. Marling’s ingénue status adds a perhaps unintentional dimension to Maggie’s power: the obsession of Peter and the others (in both faith and desire to prove her phony) might well be limited were she not a youngish blonde with a tranquil smile. When her followers beg her to sing a popular song from her time, Maggie leads them in an eerily beautiful singalong of the Cranberries’ “Dreams,” and afterward only one member dares question her story. When he does, she talks him into a corner. Maggie, like Marling herself, is almost eerily persuasive.
These scenes are fascinating enough that when Peter and Lorna find themselves at odds with each other and the group, the movie can offer few clues about who, if anyone, may be right. Like Another Earth, this movie raises questions that may be too numerous to count as a point of view. Along with its ambiguities, Sound of My Voice leaves a lingering mystery over whether there’s less to Marling’s work than meets the eye.