#279: Sound of My Voice (2011)

Following the somewhat disappointing faux sci-fi drama Another Earth, the Brit Marling double whammy concludes with Sound of My Voice. Released the same year at Sundance to a much more muted critical response, it is a psychological thriller about a cult movement, and all the insubordination and traumatic aftereffects that goes with it. For a dark soul like me, it’s an exciting premise. But, following Sean Durkin’s superb Martha Marcy May Marlene (which was also released the same year at Sundance!), there’s only so much dogmatic manipulation drama one man can take, y’know?

Peter and Lorna (Christopher Denham and Nicole Vicius) are a romantic couple-cum-amateur documentarians. As voyeurs, we see them wash, slip on medical whites and are blindfolded before being taken to the basement of a nondescript suburban home. What lurks down there is a cult group, lead by the enigmatic Maggie (Brit Marling), a woman who claims to have been sent back from the 2054 to teach the people of the present how to survive in the future. Intending to expose the group, Peter and Lorna start to succumb to the power of Maggie’s convincing doctrine, which puts their investigative journalism, relationship and ethical judgement at risk.

Yet again, Marling’s performance suggests that she might have a stronger career as a leading lady, rather than a screenwriter of hokey, loquacious dialogue. As cult leader Maggie, she harmoniously blends charisma and crushing intensity to create the only character and overall element of Sound of My Voice that manages to grip you through to the nonsensical end.

But that’s not to say that the rest of the acting cast do a bad job. Far from it. Carrying the bulk of the movie, Denman and Vicius do a good job at playing the fractured couple at crisis. Successfully matching the sweeping range of tones that the movie’s narrative requires. An honorary mention should go out to Maggie’s menacing cult henchman Klaus (Richard Wharton), aka Steve Jobs in scrubs, with long hair (and life).

Amongst these good onscreen performances are a few crippling problems. Some of the dialogue is on the nose, and the ‘cultisms’ are a tad hyperbolic – a ‘secret handshake’ that lasts thirty seconds screentime hand me with my head in my hands, at first, and laughing hysterically by the third time we’re witness to it.

These niggling problems result in a huge semantic one. I love the gumption that it takes for a filmmaker to produce ‘challenging’, contestable cinema. Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. is a prime example: what’s happening there? Well, closely follow the narrative and you’ll be able to figure it out (or not). Batmanglijil and Marling confuse ambiguity and space for interpretation with unfairly hiding stuff from the audience. As the film goes into full-on unfurl mode, all narrative contextualisation is held off-screen, leading to one particularly painful moment where a secret agent on the hunt from alleged crook Maggie turns to Lorna and says “let me tell you the real truth…”, *fade to black*. It’s not cinematically engaging, it’s gross mistrust of your audience’s tolerance levels, and is basically telling them, to quote Louis C.K., to ‘suck a bag of dicks’.

So yes, the ending is quite infuriating; tainting what is otherwise a mildly impressive relationship/manipulation drama. Sound of My Voice is certainly an inferior film to Martha, but Marling and co-writer/director Zal Batmanglij still deliver just enough chills to keep you gripped for it’s slight 85 minute running time.

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