Movie review: Sound of my Voice

By Columbus Alive
From the May 24, 2012 edition

What do you think of when you hear the word “cult”? The Manson Family? Jonestown? Heaven’s Gate? The Branch Davidians?

Whenever a cult makes headlines, we collectively wring our hands and wonder how so many people could fall mindlessly under the sway of a charismatic leader.

The low-budget suspense thriller “Sound of my Voice” examines this concept to unnerving effect. It’s a creepy, smart and ultimately challenging.

Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) are a boyfriend-girlfriend team of filmmakers who attempt to infiltrate a mysterious group for a documentary.

After being vetted on the outside, they’re finally invited to join the group, but not without precaution. At a secondary location, they are searched, bound and blindfolded before being driven to meet the mysterious Maggie (Brit Marling).

You wouldn’t peg Maggie for a cult leader. Young, blonde, pretty and rail-thin, she looks too frail to be a threat. Of course, she also claims to be from the year 2054 and promises to keep her followers safe during upcoming years of turmoil.

Peter, a schoolteacher by day, is obsessively committed to exposing Maggie as a fraud. He’s dismissive of her followers. “They’re weak. And they’re looking for meaning.”

But as Peter and Lorna get deeper, things become more ominous. The questions about Maggie grow larger, and the strain on the couple’s relationship grows.

“Sound of my Voice” is an impressive work from talents who lack much pedigree. It’s director Zal Batmanglij’s first feature, and he co-wrote the script with the film’s lead actress, Marling, herself a relative newcomer. With a heavy reliance on a solid script, the film manages drum-tight tension without leaning on too many gimmicks.

Denham and Vicius ground the film as the audience’s eyes and ears on the inside, and we share their sense of dread. That feeling of “what the hell is going on here?” is what keeps “Sound” churning as layers begin to unfold.

It’s also a film that will likely divide audiences. It’s not afraid of some ambiguities, and some may be left confused or unaffected by the resolution. Some seeming gaps in characters’ motivations are forgivable only because the narrative works so well.

It’s actually a nice companion to the similarly disquieting “Martha Marcy May Marlene” — another low-budget film that explored cults and their aftermath.

And much as Elizabeth Olsen received accolades for her turn in “Martha,” Marling’s soft and occasionally sinister performance here makes her an actress to watch.

Ultimately, “Sound” is a fine bit of filmmaking and the antidote to the cult of the summer blockbuster.