Sound of My Voice, a vaguely creepy and strangely bubbly thriller about a cult leader who could either be a savior from the future or a dangerous criminal (or perhaps both), has much in common with its enigmatic main character: It makes ambitious promises that it ultimately can’t keep. It has plenty of great ideas, but many of them seem to have gotten lost in the beats that no one bothered to write. What’s here is an entertaining, often engaging story that pulls you in and creeps you out in spite of its relentless absurdity and intentional silliness. What’s missing is the real meat of the story—we get plenty of whats, but we don’t get the whys that would have been far more intriguing.
Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) are a pair of documentary filmmakers who have infiltrated a cult in hopes of exposing its leader as a fraud before some serious Jonestown-style stuff goes down. Said leader is Maggie (Brit Marling, who also co-wrote the film), a young woman whose physical frailty belies a fierce intellect and a stunning ability to manipulate those around her.
At least, that’s what we’re told. Sound of My Voice picks up its story late in the game, when Peter and Lorna have already been accepted into the cult and learned its elaborate, super-secret handshake. We’re given a couple of cursory flashbacks to flesh out their characters—Peter’s mom died when he was a kid and Lorna, the daughter of celebrities, was in rehab by the time she was 12—but how did they infiltrate a cult that is so meticulous about weeding out nonbelievers? Look, they just did. Don’t ask questions.
Before long, we begin to question the couples’ objectivity. Are they still out to expose Maggie, or are they beginning to buy into her fantastic claims? And what about Maggie herself—does she suspect that Peter and Lorna aren’t who they claim to be? That ambiguity sets up the film’s most suspenseful scenes. During a fantastically gross “cleansing” ritual, Peter refuses to puke up an apple he’s just eaten for fear that he’ll also regurgitate a transmitter he swallowed to help him record footage of the cult via a tiny camera hidden in his eyeglasses. The verbal struggle that ensues between him and Maggie is terrific, and gut-twistingly suspenseful. Likewise, when a female cult member leads Lorna into the woods and pulls a revolver out of her backpack, we almost don’t want to see what might happen.
And while all this is going on, the filmmakers pull off their best trick. As Peter and Lorna’s skepticism falters, so does ours. Maggie is pretty convincing. Could she possibly be telling the truth? Her claims are outrageous and the proof she offers to back them up, including a bad tattoo and a reedy rendition of a Cranberries song, is laughably weak. But like the young couple who have infiltrated her cult, we begin to look for meaning where there probably is none. The filmmakers understand how cults work, and they put the audience through the paces of assimilation along with the characters. It’s hard to keep our bearings. Marling and co-writer/first-time feature director Zal Batmanglij make sure that we’re never quite comfortable with what’s going on, even when they let us in on the frequent jokes.
The story takes a turn for the sinister when Maggie calls Peter into her private room and asks him to prove his loyalty by doing something that, in all likelihood, will go horribly wrong. Her strange request, which involves an 8-year-old girl with a collection of black Legos in her room and needle tracks between her toes, takes the film into true thriller territory, and it never looks back.
To the filmmakers’ credit, they sidestep the obvious twist ending in favor of something more artful, if also more frustrating. In the end, though, they ask a little too much of the audience. We aren’t just expected to fill in the blanks; we’re expected to do most of the heavy lifting. The beats that are missing from the film are some of the most important ones. How do Peter and Lorna earn the trust of Maggie and her screwy sidekick? What are the stakes? We’re told that Maggie and her followers are dangerous, but we don’t know why. What might happen if the young couple are found out? And why is it so important to them to expose Maggie? It feels like huge chunks of the story are missing, even before we reach the non-resolution that is the finale.
Sound of My Voice recognizes its own absurdity, and has a good bit of fun with it. (You can visit the film’s website and learn the secret handshake.) There’s a great film in here somewhere, as long as you don’t mind writing it yourself.