'Sound of My Voice': Small Budget, Big Ideas
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
The indie film "Sound of My Voice" is both striking and contradictory: Stuffed full of ideas and twists and turns, it also plays a little thin and fragile, more like a haiku than a novel. Starring and co-written by Brit Marling ("Another Earth"), the film begins (and it's not giving away too much to say this, as the film's first 12 minutes are online as a kind of mega-trailer) as a young couple are finally being initiated to the inner circle of the cult they've joined. They're taken from one unknown place to another in a series of cars to maintain secrecy, through the cul-de-sac anonymity of San Fernando Valley suburban homes. There, they are asked to clean and scour themselves raw before they finally meet the cult's leader, Maggie (Marling). Maggie has a message of sacrifice and struggle, and warns of hard times to come. This isn't prophecy, for Maggie, but rather memory. Maggie's most outrageous claim, made matter-of-factly, is that she's been sent from 2054 to warn anyone brave enough to listen about the collapse soon to come ...
Of course, the young couple, Peter and Lorna (Christopher Denham and Nicole Vicius), have their own secrets, even as they're being pulled in more and more by Maggie's acolytes and her calm but crazy-sounding explanation of what the future holds. Part Joan Didion or Don DeLillo in its post-modern matter-of-fact paranoia -- with a touch of James Cameron or Ray Bradbury as we learn more and more about Maggie, and about how seriously other people take her -- director and co-writer Zal Batmanglij creates a nested series of tricks and reversals and revelations.
All of this, of course, would be irrelevant if we didn't believe Maggie, or at least understood how Maggie believes herself. With a manner both inhumanly abstract and all too down-to-earth (sneaking a cigarette out the window, Maggie offers to Peter words to the effect that she's a time traveler, not a saint), Marling's Maggie is a magnetic presence with the long hair and pallid transcendence of a painted Renaissance saint but the thousand-yard stare of someone who's seen (or thinks they've seen) too much. And while Denham and Vicius understandably take a back seat to Marling in terms of moving the plot forward, they both get to play tough scenes with real affect, as well.
The shooting style and editing of the film are claustrophobically intimate and clammy, with plenty of repeated moments to establish the high-level paranoia as, for but one example, pilgrims are repeatedly scrubbed shiny before having their audiences with Maggie, who lacks immunity to the diseases and toxins of "our time." (In form and function, in fact, the film most resembles Darren Aronofsky's "Pi," where big and strange ideas are brought to life and out-of-left-field artistic decisions spring onscreen, both motivated by the presence of vision and the absence of cash.)
Is Maggie some future savior, or just Charles Manson with some new age clothes and pieties and better skin care? As she begins to ask Peter for very specific things -- and he tries to keep his very specific secrets -- the audience always knows what's at stake but never quite knows what's "true." "Sound of My Voice" may seem small and slender and still -- no explosions or action sequences, just the constant ominous quiet that makes you expect something awful to happen at any time -- but I couldn't help but be haunted by the whispered echoes of its questions and ideas long after seeing it.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.