Time-Travel Thriller 'Sound of My Voice' Hits the Wrong Notes

Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) are skeptical. They've heard about the ethereal blonde woman drawing followers to a suburban California basement, but they can't believe she's anything but a sham, a cult leader sucking in the gullible, the weak-minded, the secretly desperate. They plan to infiltrate the cult, secretly record the goings on, and expose it all to the world via a documentary. But of course, Sound of My Voice (20th Century Fox DVD, Blu-ray, streaming, and download) is itself a movie, right? And thus we know it's likely that the mystery woman will make it harder on the interlopers than they expect, or that Peter and Lorna will make it harder on themselves.

Director Zal Batmanglij doesn't leave much doubt about which way his debut feature's going to break. Lorna has a privileged air; for all her lightness and groovy flexibility, she's not strong. Peter is a bespectacled, bearded, buttoned-up type; tear open his cool-nerd plaid shirt and you'd surely find the word "REPRESSION" screen-printed on his American Apparel tee. And once they're in the room with Maggie (Another Earth's Brit Marling), their veneer of pseudo-journalistic detachment starts flaking away.

Maggie claims to be from the year 2054, and since she's somehow ended up back in time a couple of decades, she's going to help a select band prepare for the future. Whatever year she's from, she knows what time it is when it comes to Peter. She drills down to his tender core tout de suite, setting him at odds with Lorna even as some of the details of Maggie's story start to ring false.

The key duo here isn't really Peter and Lorna, but Batmanglij and Marling. The script, which they co-wrote together, does a fine job of toggling the is-she/isn't-she switch back and forth until everyone's left guessing. Marling is well-cast as a charismatic soul seductress, with Maggie's wispy earth-goddess vibe camouflaging reserves of steel and salt until she needs them. Batmanglij's shooting style is patient and watchful, with plenty of hand-held intimacy. All that said, the handful of thriller-esque elements here (Primer comes to mind, for what it's worth) don't quite jibe with the more earnest chamber psychodrama of the central triangle. Despite a few powerful moments, Sound of My Voice ends up feeling more glib than profound.

There's an altogether less on-the-nose take on belief and other soul intangibles at the heart of Alps, the new film from Greek writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos. Like his breakout debut, 2010's Dogtooth, Lanthimos once again focuses on a small group of people—in this case, a mismatched quartet that includes a young blonde gymnast (Ariane Labed) and her schlubby, unforgiving coach (Johnny Verkis)—with a distinctive view of the world/delusion thanks to their side business standing-in for deceased loved ones here and there to help the survivors cope with the hole in their lives. So far, so indie-quirky.

But Lanthimos has a seemingly pathological aversion to cute. As the coach and a fellow sub, a nurse (Dogtooth's Aggeliki Papoulia), impersonate the husband and daughter of an older blind woman, respectively, blankly delivering lines about heading off to work and other small talk in her dim apartment, the scene's utter deadpan allows it to morph from absurd to poignant to just plain odd as it plays out. Even when the nurse visits a teenage tennis player with a life-threatening injury and attempts to cheer her up with an ICU bat-around, Papoulia's utter, almost canine sincerity steers the scene clear of cloying glop.

The camera follows Papoulia's nurse as she tends to her aging father, works her shift, and assiduously visits her substituting clients, and it watches as her services start to get more and more, um, dedicated. When posing as one client's late wife, her regimen consists of recreating banal dinner conversations and spats; when that relationship escalates into a more intimate substitution, it doesn't come as a huge surprise, under the circumstances. (Though it is pretty funny.) But when the tennis player dies, the nurse becomes more and more invested in substituting for the dead girl with her parents and her boyfriend, and Alps itself begins to morph into a film that's less about the group members trying to help the bereaved than it is about what the group members themselves need help with. Or, to put a finer point on it, it reveals itself as a dark comedy—so forlorn it almost isn't funny—about need, the sometimes frantic human need at the core of all of us that we sometimes can't keep banked down and try to quench in absurd, often desperate ways. Lanthimos' style is elliptical and dry, the opposite of spoonfeeding, but he and the phenomenal Papoulia have created an oddball masterpiece.