The cult is steeped in a wonderfully astute lo-fi sensibility.
The movie most immediately comparable to Sound of My Voice is last year’s Martha Marcy May Marlene and the two share a few tonal similarities, especially an unrelenting sense of dread and tension. There’s also a lot of ambiguity which is going to delight some people and turn others off. Sound of My Voice seems to strike a balance between the demands of dramatic storytelling and the preservation of that ambiguity which appears as if the movie, via co-writers Brit Marling and Zal Batmanij, doesn’t care about that balance at all. It’s weird and kind of gives the film a sense of grace it may not otherwise have had. That said, there are lingering mysteries with no clear answer, making Sound of My Voice a movie in that special sub-sub-genre where a rewatch is almost obligatory. If all this doesn’t sound like your cup o’ tea, I understand but avoiding Sound of My Voice also means missing out on a tight, intelligent little puzzle box that is among the more interesting of the low budget, high concept films released in the last couple of years. That Marling is partially responsible for one of the others, last year’s Another Earth, means she is someone who’s work is worth following.
Sound of My Voice delivers on its concept fairly early on. Somewhere in suburbia, in a minimalist basement, dwells Maggie (Brit Marling) and a few select disciples. Maggie claims she is from the future, the year 2054, and this bugs newcomers Peter (Christopher Denham, who looks like my friend Alex Slusar more than a little) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) who take it upon themselves to expose her. They each have personal history that, delivered documentary-style, let’s us in on some possible reasons why they might care at all. Lorna is a writer-in-progress and Peter is a teacher, so they are not exactly obvious candidates for guerrilla journalism.
Blindfolds, restraints, and uniform clothing are all part of the induction process each and every time they visit Maggie.
Their investigation unfolds over a series of cult meet-ups where Maggie talks to her people, including Peter and Lorna, about a range of topics. The idea is to make them ready for a time of great struggle, wherein a civil war will drive up scarcity and force people out of the cities and back to the land. Maggie’s immune system seems to be failing and she takes blood transfusions from a few of her people, while never leaving the basement and eating only fruit grown specially for her on the premises. She’s dying, she says, and she’s doing it as a sacrifice to save the people she loves.
As Maggie confronts her followers with trust exercises, brief Q&A’s, she also includes various group therapies that seem to be geared toward helping them release anxieties and mental barriers in order to trust her, and each other, in a more powerful and emotional dimension. Her interactions with them, especially Peter, are the key to making this movie work. It’s Peter who says “to see her is to believe her” as an explanation to Lorna about how these cults of personality work. Maggie is utterly charismatic, with a personable demeanor and a conversational tone that pitches precisely between conciliatory and incisive. She’s like a really good friend who not only knows you well, but is scathingly intelligent. Maggie is able to get into Peter’s head with great ease, a subtle hint that perhaps she knows things about him that she could only know if he told her himself, at some unknown time in their future. The movie is rife with little hints like this, which can go either way and which the characters often frame as typical of cult leaders. But you’re never really sure and the movie walks the tightrope of that uncertainty all the way through.
The entire movie rests on Marling’s shoulders.
Brit Marling showed her stuff in Another Earth and delivered a quiet, sad performance that dovetailed her natural beauty with the emotional reality of the character to create someone compelling enough to carry us through the pain and introspection of that movie. Here, she is much more talkative and animated and the entire movie rests on whether or not Maggie works. Does Marling’s beauty and confidence go far enough to sell us on the uncertainty of the character? If we aren’t like Peter, doubting our own doubt almost from word one, the movie is obscured by a border between the audience and what is happening. It’s Marling’s job to bridge that gap by guiding us in and daring us to trust her, as if we too are her adherents.
That is the secret weapon of the movie. If we weren’t at least partially taken in, the seeds of doubt planted within the movie would take over completely. Instead, there’s always that ambiguity which the script and Marling’s performance render so masterfully. Key scenes hinting at the extraordinary that may be going on here are left largely unexplained while breaks in Maggie’s story, or at least the character she presents to most of her people, are explored enough to really shake the potential for her story to be true.
As Peter finds himself seduced by Maggie’s reality, tension develops with Lorna.
So all that’s left is Maggie, for most of the movie anyway, to challenge Peter and us to perhaps believe in the extraordinary. For all that it’s about faith, and trust, Sound of My Voice is not about religion. Maggie’s group is not a religious cult but more of a commune and there seems to be a point to the exercises she conducts, and even the uncompromising but skillful way she dismisses doubters. How not anti-science this notion of faith is interests me. What Maggie is asking them to believe is that, sometime in the future, time travel is possible (though dangerous) which basically means she’s asking them to believe in a scientific possibility not a supernatural one. That’s interesting and reflects a gambit that reasonable people in the movie, and the audience, are susceptible to at least one kind of faith, a faith in a person more than an intangible.
So what matters isn’t whether or not Maggie is telling the truth, but whether or not Peter believes her and whether we believe he has enough grounds to do so. The movie does make a bit of a statement about this but I won’t get into the details yet. It’s important to keep who Peter is in mind, also. More than Lorna, Peter’s relationship to the very idea of cults is incredibly personal. He went looking for this as a way to deal with some stuff in his past. That he is trying to undo Maggie while also maybe being won over is the obvious part of a more complicated subtext. Whether we believe Peter’s reactions to Maggie, some of which he claims aren’t genuine, is a piece of that. As Maggie tries to break through the barriers that prevent him from trusting her, he is throwing some up for us (and Lorna) that make trusting him a question. It’s a beautiful structure of interaction that the movie subtly builds with the audience.
The culmination of which is Maggie’s final test for Peter, an act he justifies as part of the necessity of seeing his expose through. But is he being honest? Is Maggie being honest about what she wants and why? The nature of their relationship, Maggie’s veracity and Peter’s trust in it, comes to a head here and shows the audience the work that’s gone into building these moments to make a potentially innocent service (Peter does his best to keep it in that realm) into a symbol of faith.
Though a close-quarters and dialogue-heavy movie, Sound of My Voice occasionally has time for shots like this one.
Oh hey. You know what time it is?
It’s Spoiler Time
So ultimately I think there’s something going on with Maggie, that she is probably a time traveler and that’s the reality of the story. But there are some tantalizing hints that this is not the case and I’ll try to be as detailed as possible in exploring them here. I do this because I was unable to find a satisfying discussion of this stuff on the internet, much less a catalog of all the weird little mysteries and possible red herrings, the details you notice but may ultimately mean nothing.
Why do I think this? Well, there’s the obvious secret handshake thing. That’s the one pretty darn unambiguous nod to the possibility that Maggie is telling the truth. But then again, the whole deal with Abigail is weird. Why is her father so creepy? What’s up with the black LEGO and the terrorist thing? Is she just autistic? It’s never clear and it could very well be that Maggie’s connection to her is different than what she claims, that underneath the extraordinary story is some darker truth we never see. That said, the reason I think this doesn’t undermine my reading of the film is that none of this is textual. Yes, we do see things that go unexplained (Abigail stuff mostly) so it is tough to say what light it sheds (or not) on Maggie. However, this film is super careful about what it does and doesn’t show us. I don’t think what we see is an accident, much less what we don’t see. We never see any reason to believe Maggie is connected to Abigail whatsoever (they look a little alike, which can go either way for Maggie’s story). Without any more direct hint that Maggie is her mother, or maybe an older sister, or has some other connection… all we have is that handshake.
Moreover, there’s the Carol Briggs (Davenia McFadden) thing. Briggs shows up in a couple of scenes and is even more mysterious than Maggie. When we first see her, she goes to a hotel room where she checks for bugs and then unpacks a concealed briefcase with sealed files (we never see) and what looks like the pieces of a handgun with silencer. I thought “who is this hitwoman?”. Later, Briggs introduces herself to Lorna as some kind of law enforcement agent who knows plenty about Maggie’s operation but needs help setting up a sting. We see a photo of Maggie looking somewhat confused, wearing a dress and standing outside of Gauman’s Chinese Theater. If Maggie’s story is true, is this from when she first arrive din 2010 or is it possibly from the future? I seriously thought the movie was going to end with this woman killing Maggie, and that was going to be how the final suggestion of what is true would be delivered. Marling and Batmanij are smarter than that, though, and take Briggs out of the picture as the noose is tightened. It’s cops who take Maggie down, solidifying Briggs’ story that they want her for crimes and suspect her of arming her followers to create a militia (some evidence of this is seen but it’s circumspect). If that’s what’s up, why is Briggs carrying her files secretly and checking her hotel room for surveillance?
A scene that hints at something darker and potentially sinister beneath Maggie’s promises of a “safe place”.
Some of the ambiguity comes from Maggie’s unnamed cult itself. At one point, Joanne (Kandice Stroh) takes Lorna for a hike to a shooting range. Trust is important, Joanne says and proceeds to show Lorna how to shoot a gun. This echoes some similar stuff in Martha Marcy May Marlene and accomplishes the same sense of foreboding. Worse is a brief moment with Klaus (Richard Wharton) where we see him extracting apple seeds. This would seem innocuous to anyone who doesn’t know that apple seeds contain trace amounts of cyanide. I don’t know if you can render the poison from any amount of apple seeds, but knowing even as much as I did lent the moment an air of menace that relates back to the specter of suicide cults, but also Peter’s belief that Maggie is dangerous. I can’t see that this moment was an accident and it is a great example of the uncertain tension Sound of My Voice deals in.
So in spite of all these potent suggestions that Maggie is up to no good, I can’t shake that handshake. That moment with Abigail, who Maggie claims is her mother, is so full of wonder and that slam sensation of realization (delivered almost completely by Peter’s expression), that I can’t help but want to believe. So did the movie get to me? Was that the point? To show how easy it is to be taken in by the Maggies of the world?
The iconic secret handshake that winds up being a symbol of so much of this film.
Sound of My Voice is obviously a movie that stays with you, offering up tons of food for thought in its ambiguity and the tiny details of character that make it work. This can be a frustrating experience for some people. Part of me would rather have had the movie come down more definitively on the meaning of the mystery surrounding both Abigail and Carol Briggs. I think the movie handles Maggie perfectly, with only these other bits leaving me with that vague sense of “wtf, mate?” floating around everything else about the film.
Anyways, it’s a great film and a nice companion piece to Martha Marcy May Marlene. Plus, Brit Marling is the best!