Director/Coscreenwriter: Zal Batmanglij
By Roderick Heath
There’s a distinctive and interesting strand emerging in independent cinema of films using motifs borrowed from genre storytelling and scifi, in particular, to produce fablelike explorations of human nature, morality, and the slippery nature of mortal perception. Some examples of this strand include Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter (2011), Benedek Fliegauf’s Womb (2010), and Gareth Edwards’ Monsters (2010). Whilst some slide too easily into obvious parable and pretentious discursion, others succeed in redefining both strands of creative endeavour, wielding both the low-key authenticity associated with low-budget and independent cinema and the wide-sweeping, metaphorical power of ideas that sprout best in nonrealistic contexts. Sound of My Voice follows hard on the heels of one of the best movies so far to emerge from this trend, 2011’s moody Another Earth. These films represent not only a genuine auteurist calling card for their respective directors, but also for Brit Marling, who, on both films, penned the screenplay with the director and played a pivotal onscreen role. Another Earth sustained its bold-type thematic conceits with a counterbalancing poeticism and an oddly unwavering conviction in its own absurdity; in spite of the different director-collaborators, this quality is transferred intact to Sound of My Voice, which represents an effective leap forward. Another Earth essentially appended a well-handled, but familiar emotional melodrama onto its metaphoric framework, whereas Sound of My Voice is more an intricately woven study in character and quandary meeting in a zone of ambiguous reality. Sound of My Voice could be described as a nonviolent, abstracted remake of The Terminator (1984) in the way it evokes a similar landscape of fear of the future counterbalanced by an eddying uncertainty in the present. It also bears certain conceptual similarities to this year’s Looper, to which it could actually be the superior work.
The curt, mystifying opening sees two young people, Peter Aitken (Christopher Denham) and Lorna Michaelson (Nicole Vicius), arriving at a suburban house in Los Angeles where they follow written instructions to leave their car, strip off their clothes, wash, and change into hospital gowns. They are then blindfolded and bundled into a van by ponytailed Klaus (Richard Wharton) and other helpmates in a mysterious cabal and taken to another, seemingly ordinary house. Upon arrival, each person goes through a strange and complex ritual handshake that’s been taught to them in the preparatory stages of this journey and introduced to Maggie (Marling), glimpsed emerging from a private room filled with the sounds of medical equipment. Maggie is a luminously attractive, youthful, and compelling presence who recounts her tale: she once awoke immersed in a filled hotel bathtub with no memory of who she was or where she came from. As she wandered LA’s low-rent districts, she was beset by illnesses, realised that she had no immunity, and became something of an urban legend. Klaus heard about her, tracked her down, took her in, and has built a peculiar kind of cult around her. Maggie states that thanks to her slowly returning memories and the cryptic tattoos on her body, she has realized that she is a time traveller from 30 years in the future sent back to illuminate a chosen few about the horrors and dangers that await and to train them mentally and physically to survive those dangers with positive meaning intact.
Peter and Lorna, however, are not true believers looking for a New Age guru, or at least, not in the usual fashion: they’re actually independent documentary filmmakers who were engaged in making a movie about cults when they heard about Maggie, and have jumped through many hoops to get close to this enigmatic figure. Both Peter and Lorna have their own baggage that makes them vulnerable to reacting unhealthily to this situation. Lorna, a recovering wild child and daughter of Hollywood royalty, has forcibly recalibrated her reality and approaches life with a measured scepticism, whilst Peter is the seemingly mild but emotionally damaged child of a woman who herself was taken in by a cult and died from a curable disease because she followed the cult’s credo in refusing treatments: Peter awoke “12 years old and without a mother.” Peter works as a teacher in his day job, and like Harry Houdini’s war on spiritualists, his and Lorna’s adventures into the weird and wondrous world of cults feels like a campaign of debunking rooted in a quiescent desire to find the real thing. Maggie’s story has the beauty, in a touch that feels a little like a spoof on Michael Biehn’s character in The Terminator, of neither providing nor requiring proof beyond her own persuasive explanations. The elaborate precautions the cult has devised to make the initiates strip away all of their belongings and clothing are intended, nominally, to keep bacteria out of Maggie’s environment, but also make it conveniently near-impossible for Peter and Lorna to track down her location and obtain footage of her. To get around this, Peter eventually swallows a receiver linked to a miniature camera hidden in his glasses. But this stunt presages an intense encounter with Maggie in which fear of being found out manifests on several levels.
Batmanglij’s visuals, editing, and audio are as precisely fashioned as cut glass throughout much of Sound of My Voice, expostulating with nerveless detail the process of Peter and Lorna’s journey into Maggie’s strange, hermetic world, a world carefully contrived to cut off normal recourses and alternate perceptions. Here, Maggie is queen, and via Marling’s cunningly pitched performance, she generates switchback-inducing emotions, shifting from beatific, therapeutic wholesomeness to insinuating slyness and disturbing provocation. In the film’s most rivetingly composed and keenly acted sequence, Maggie begins a session with her followers in which she gives them each an apple to eat, but tweaks the apple’s association with the tree of knowledge from which sin was plucked and turns it into a symbol of mind- and soul-clogging modernity. She demands that everyone vomit up what they’ve just eaten, and, of course, Peter, carrying the receiver in his stomach, attempts to demur. Maggie begins, with alternations of aggressive psychological assault and wheedling empathy, to probe Peter’s anxiety, quickly grasping on the powerful loss and anger beneath his inoffensive surface that seems easily provoked. She deduces not only his tragic background, but also seems to uncover abuse and alienation that followed. Peter begins to weep and finally gives in to the urge to vomit. He fingers through his puke to recover the receiver before anyone sees it whilst he receives a group hug from the cult. Peter later denies to Lorna that what he admitted for Maggie’s sake was true, whilst the audience has been privileged, thanks to voiceover-laden flashbacks, with the knowledge that at least some of Maggie’s deductions were accurate. Just how many is, however, impossible to judge.
Either way, Maggie is revealed as someone with both a powerfully manipulative sense of psychology that can be wielded with malicious force, but who is often healing and solicitous towards her flock. She can also be a pseudo-guru with a way of working with people that is alternately engaging and unpleasant: some of her drill techniques—group hugs, liberating dancing—are almost cornball New Age therapies. Others—self-induced vomiting and worm-eating—are more outlandish pseudotherapies, reminiscent of the kinds of exercises described by Andre Gregory in My Dinner With Andre (1982), for shocking the self out of the comfortable stasis of contemporary, urban life. More mysterious are some of the rituals of the cult, like donating blood, perhaps related to the filtering machine to which Maggie is connected, and her own first performance, striding in veiled like an ancient Vestal priestess and carting along an oxygen cylinder between aisles of her prone adherents. When she’s asked to sing a song from the future, she eventually gives in and warbles a ballad in a wispy fashion, only to have one of the flock, Lam (Alvin Lam), to state that he recognises it as a song by The Cranberries. After explaining that it was repopularised in her time by another artist, Maggie wisely (or cunningly) dodges requests to cite upcoming events by pointing out to her followers their own fuzzy memories of events 30 or 40 years in the past. She finally has Lam thrown out of the house by the brawny men who serve as her unofficial bodyguards, whilst Lam’s partner, Christine (Constance Wu), elects to remain behind. Maggie seems fatally unmasked, and yet as Lorna asks, why if you were a fake time traveller would you make such an obvious misstep? Maggie brings prophecies of war, shortages, and breakdown, but also promises of something close to an idyllic life in resettled communities in the countryside.
As Sound of My Voice plays out, it becomes clear that something special, if not exactly harmonious or healthy, is arcing between Maggie and Peter, with powerful underlying motives adding to physical attraction, whilst Lorna is engaged by one of the older cult members, Joanne (Kandice Stroh), who leads her up into the woods and teaches her how to shoot. Is Maggie really creating a kind of private army with the cult, or are such expressions simply a side channel for the liberating, destructive impulses of the people she’s attracted? Cults, the forces that attract people to them, and the mystique of the kind of person who can command them, seem newly of interest for independent filmmakers, as noted by last year’s Martha Marcy May Marlene and this year’s The Master. Perhaps some of this interest can be attributed to the troubling power of charisma and the appeal of facetious messages that can be tweaked with political overtones. But it also seems based in a highly contemporary interest in alternate modes of living. Implicit in both Martha Marcy May Marlene and Sound of My Voice is a contemplation of the familiar problems and paranoias of such subcultures, but also disgust with a mass culture in which the many promises of capitalism and democracy have been seen to be failing and incompatible.
Denham’s excellent lead performance helps put across Peter’s schismatic nature: whilst he wears the familiarly affable apparel and affectations of a slightly nerdy member of the modern creative class, he carefully reveals the hard, almost inquisitorial sense of purpose that drives him. His motivation for making the documentary, as well as answering some obvious psychological needs, is actually predicated on a similar hate for the workaday and the banal that must have driven his mother into the arms of an alternate reality. The contradictory, but widespread feeling that modernity is a form of slow poison even as it extends, prolongs, and eases the burdens of life, is one that Peter’s mother embraced as a life truth and accepted the consequences. It’s also explicated and exploited by Maggie, as she encourages her flock to purge themselves of baggage and their attachment to transitory things as a way of preparing themselves for surviving upheaval. The assumption that Peter and Lorna make in moving into her circle that Maggie is a phony and a con artist running an egocentric empire, and worse, that she might be inculcating them for criminal acts, is constantly mooted. This assumption seems borne out when a woman, Carol Briggs (Davenia McFadden) approaches Lorna with evidence revealing that Maggie is actually a woman named Shelley Whittle who is wanted for armed robbery, and her elaborate precautions are a way of staying hidden whilst still running her scam.
Sound of My Voice tries to get at something more interesting and original, however, than reinforcing truisms about big demagogues in small ponds, for the tale is powered by the notion that even a person who is troubling, perhaps even dangerous, may have gifts and messages worth listening to, and that the wilful sceptic might, in fact, find a longed-for catharsis in such an enigmatic creature. Peter’s desire to exorcise his past is entwined with a desperate need to penetrate and strip away the layers of the mysteries with which he’s presented, cursed with an everlasting need to understand forces so powerful they can convince an apparently rational person to act in an apparently irrational way. As he gets closer to Maggie, her appeal precisely as someone who proclaims a counterintuitive weltanschauung offers precisely this contradictory appeal of the irrational within a seemingly cohesive framework, and Peter’s need for purgation begins to overwhelm his own judgement. Key to the unfolding folie à deux of Peter and Maggie is the suggestion that Peter seems more important to Maggie’s plans than other members of the cult, and for a disturbing reason. Maggie wants Peter to bring her one of his students, Abigail Pritchett (Avery Kristen Pohl), a young girl marked out by strange interludes of narcolepsy and aggressive altercations with other students, and who, at home, is watched over by a mysteriously solicitous father or guardian who treats her maladies, whilst Abigail constructs elaborate patterns with Lego-like blocks that testify to a peculiar brilliance. When Peter asks what she could possibly want with the girl, Maggie answers squarely that Abigail is her mother.
The fascinating central study in dichotomous desires to both embrace and defeat the irrational is counterbalanced by an even headier, but also more familiar, contemporary conceit, as Batmanglij and Marling toy with problems of perception and reality, teasing the audience right to the end with the question as to whether Maggie’s story is true. To a certain extent, it doesn’t matter, as Maggie’s capacities are depicted in sufficient detail to make her a striking and an alarming figure, a benefactor and a destroyer, a visionary and a mind-rapist. I expect this is where the weight of the drama is supposed to lie. The more overt gamesmanship of the “choose your own adventure” narrative ambiguity is comparatively teasing and conventional, even as it clearly lays claim to the current vogue of offering questions without answers. Marling follows on from Another Earth, which concluded with a kind of moral-psychological cliffhanger, as the accursed heroine was confronted by her doppelganger and the audience was left to ponder exactly what this signified, whilst here the filmmakers seem to have demystified Maggie until a literally last-minute twist throws everything for a loop. The climactic moment, in which Peter actually manages to bring Abigail to Maggie, sees the strange and preternaturally gifted girl who doesn’t seem to know Maggie at all nonetheless reproduce perfectly the elaborate cult handshake, which Maggie claims Abigail taught her, moments before police burst in and drag the erstwhile futuristic envoy away.
The challenge to the audience—to interpret according to their presuppositions—is almost smug in its apparently clear dichotomy. Yet it’s leavened by a complicating ambiguity, as there are suggestions that the choice before the viewer is not a simple schism between faith and rationality, the wish to believe in Maggie and the need to dismiss her, as other dimensions are hinted at. Why does Carol, when she is first glimpsed, go through elaborate exercises to make sure her hotel room is not bugged, and why is the photo she later presents to Lorna as proof of Maggie’s actual identity smuggled to her through such a strange method? Why does Abigail write “terrorist” on a schoolmate’s backpack? What is the correlation between Abigail’s illness and Maggie’s? Either way, Maggie’s words to Peter—that he is the real centre of the mystery—reverberate with new clarity as he gazes into the white light into which Maggie has disappeared (taken off to prison or perhaps spirited back to the future) with his own perspective blown to pieces. His hunt for catharsis, far from having been simply answered, proves rather to have been made exponentially more complicated. The possibility that another drama entirely different from the two that Peter and Lorna are presented with, is thus also mooted. In any event, Sound of My Voice explores the need for, and the impossibility of, complete certainty, but it’s also ultimately about the very feeling of unease and longing such a lack generates. The varieties of anxiety, paranoia, and perceptual limitation explored throughout the film are left free-floating, described as a quality of life rather than the product of a specifically causal entity. This quality thrusts the work as a whole high above the usual meta-narrative games.
Batmanglij, who directs with cool restraint throughout, makes effective use of restrained, minatory stylistic flourishes, as in the flashbacks that fill us in on Peter and Lorna’s history, shown in grainy, haunted VHS footage in which a young, shirtless Peter rides a bike and bounds off into a darkness that seems almost existential and Lorna attends a party where naked men do push-ups, an amusing fillip of high-life decadence. Particular good is the visualisation of Maggie’s account of her history, her awakening as a stranded and stripped amnesiac and her wanderings in LA’s blasted zones, evocative fragments of desolate existence recalling John Sayles’ The Brother from Another Planet (1984) as an exiled martyr amidst seamy humanity, whilst Klaus searches for her, an efficiently composed sequence that could almost have been another, perhaps even better film. Where Sound of My Voice treads water more critically is in the half-hearted depiction of Peter and Lorna’s relationship and their fraying accord, narrative function giving way to standard-issue indie-flick break-up, and the film never really works out what do with Lorna. The rarefied flavour of the film as a whole certainly isn’t for everybody, but if one values films that can achieve a lot with very little, then Sound of My Voice, in spite of its flaws, is a small gem.