Friday, June 1, 2012

Sound of My Voice

Sound of My Voice (2012)
Dir. Zal Batmanglij
Starring Brit Marling, Christopher Denham, Nicole Vicius

SOUND OF MY VOICE is an interesting little exercise in a film which is narratively complete, straightforward, and yet still offers only questions with no answers. Whether or not you enjoy it probably comes down to  how fair you find it that the film gains its ambiguity by deliberately withholding information, and how worthwhile you find the questions that it raises in and of themselves.

The premise is exceedingly simple. LA  hipster couple Peter and Lorna infiltrates a cult with the intent of making a documentary about the subject, only to find themselves asking some uncomfortable questions about themselves and their new “family.” See, the cult is headed by the charismatic Maggie (co-writer and ANOTHER EARTH star Brit Marling) who claims she is from 2054 and has traveled backwards through time in an effort to guide her followers out of harms way when some unspecified disaster befalls mankind in the future. If she’s telling the truth, the film should probably be called a Sci-Fi. If not, it’s closer to a prequel to MARTHA MAGGIE MAY MARLENE.

So is she full of shit, or should we take heed of her dire warning? She seems honest, approachable, human. Peter’s initial assessment of her is, “to hear her is to believe her,” but of course, that’s exactly what you’d expect from a successful cult leader, right? We also see her bully, intimidate, and manipulate. Is that merely an expression of her human flaws, or another good indicator that she’s a highly skilled con artist?

This can only end in Kool-Aide.

The film’s story evolves slowly but steadily, introducing new wrinkles just as you’re sure you’ve got a handle on the situation. But although the story is plenty compelling, the whole thing is mostly just a framework to examine the concept of belief. What is it gonna take to get you to believe someone when there’s no evidence to support their unusual claims? Is it a judgement of the person making the claim? A risk-benefit assessment? Do you simply want to believe even though maybe you shouldn’t? The film seems to slyly be suggesting just how badly most people want something to believe in or --more troublingly-- want to surrender their free will to some authority figure.

This particular film is about a cult, but of course it applies to any “mainstream” religion just as easily. If you’re willing to accept and respect people believing in accounts written decades after the fact about a mortal god who was his own son committing suicide to appease himself, then what grounds do you have for skepticism about this cute blonde gal who says she wants to help you prepare for a post-apocalyptic world which seems perfectly likely these days? And for that matter, why is either appealing? Is it the threat of the apocalypse? The appeal of a charismatic messiah? The simple, primal need to be part of something? Out hipster LA couple goes into the project with the smug certainty that they’ll easily infiltrate the cult and surreptitiously gather evidence to use against them later. What they don’t count on is just how being assimilated into the group will affect them, and how much it will call into question things they took for granted about themselves. And the audience --doled out information at the same rate as the characters-- gets to play along too.

Now, as an exercise in belief, I think it’s very slightly unfair for the simple fact that it’s a movie. In real life, I’m not sure I’d be tempted to believe some hot blonde’s story about being a prophet from the future unless it seemed likely that sex would be forthcoming. But in a movie, you know the director is in control of reality and it might very plausibly turn out that Lorna is a robot assassin sent from another dimension or some such nonsense. So as director Batmanglij* slowly reveals pieces of the puzzle, you get the experience of trying to assemble them yourself into something which seems plausible to you. And as things change, you’re challenged to ask yourself why you might have been so ready to believe one scenario over another.

Man, this Michael Bay reimagining of NINJA TURTLES has really gotten out of hand.

To my mind, the pleasure of the ambiguity is ruined slightly by the end, which provides one bit of information which seemed to me a little too definitive. But wouldn’t you know it, my filmgoing companions walked out with the exact opposite impression of what the end meant, so maybe that just proves Batmanglij’s point. Either way, don’t expect any big denouement where everything is neatly explained. Life is often a frustrating tangle of ambiguity for us to try to parse some sense out of, and the movie embraces that idea. Instead, expect a quietly tense, compelling, and haunting little story which dares to ask not just what you believe, but why.

Marling, who co-wrote and starred in both ANOTHER EARTH and this one, seems to be the real deal. A thoughtful, imaginative creator of simple yet compelling scenarios, who is also a gifted enough actress to pull off the execution. Looks like other people are taking notice; she’s being directed by Robert Redford and co-starring with Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon and Tim Roth in a few upcoming films set for release this year. But despite those names, the one I’m really looking forward to is her next film as a writer, again working with Batmanglij on something wikipedia calls an “action mystery film” (what, like 48 HOURS?) If that one is as good as her first two, I’m ready to officially call her one of the most exciting artists working today. And that, my friends, will be a belief based on very solid evidence indeed.

*motto: just say “Batman” and add “glij”


  1. I felt pretty mixed about ANOTHER EARTH, which I thought had an interesting premise and two wonderful lead performances, and also almost nothing else I liked about it.

    Still, SOUND OF MY VOICE looks kinda awesome and I was actually pretty ticked at myself for missing it when it ran at E Street. I'm hoping maybe this director has more solid chops than the dude who did ANOTHER EARTH, which I found kinda ungainly and lacking in anything like atmosphere or a consistent tone. The trailer for SOUND OF MY VOICE was creepy as fuck and I'm hoping that's true of the film, too.

    Marling was also pretty funny and adorable in an episode of COMMUNITY, maybe my favorite show on TV right now, so she is super cool in my book.

  2. I wouldn't say the film is as creepy as the trailers make it look. More uneasy and haunting. The tension is subtle rather than overt.

    "interesting premise and two wonderful lead performances, and also almost nothing else I liked about it." -- nothing else? What else is there? That once sentence pretty much describes the whole movie. Which is maybe a part of the problem.

  3. Well, I dig subtle tension, uneasiness and ambiguity, so it still might be up my alley.

    As for ANOTHER EARTH, I might have been more willing to forgive the uninspired direction if I had liked Cahill & Marling's screenplay more. They came up with a great premise, and then kinda squander it by forcing it into an unsurprising story with a strained emotional arc that doesn't do much except hit all the expected beats. The lead performances are strong, but the characters' emotional journeys can pretty much be predicted within the first 15 minutes of the movie, and they are constantly doing things I'm not convinced they would actually do just to further the story along.

  4. Yeah, if you recall from my review, I thought the story was pretty forced, too. I guess I ultimately found that the strong performances made up for it, though. I should warn you that it's entirely possible that you'll feel the same way about this one: that you can see the script working to manipulate you. But I was involved and enjoying the experience enough to let it.

  5. So, we just saw this last night, and I think I have to agree that my only annoyance with the movie was exactly as you said: "the film gains its ambiguity by deliberately withholding information." The fact that at the the movie ended with certain characters having certain pieces of information that the audience didn't makes it almost feel like a frustrating whodunit that's impossible to solve because some random piece of information is the key to the whole thing that's introduced in the last scene. A good mystery, in my opinion, should keep you on level playing ground with the characters, so it feels like there's a point at all to following along getting invested in them and that the ambiguity is born organically of the situation, instead of the director or the characters themselves trying to pull one over on you, the reader/viewer/whatever.

    That said, I had no problem with them leaving the central conceit itself--whether or not she was full of shit or for real--ambiguous, because I really did enjoy their exploration of proof and belief, and the question of what it takes to tip the scale in favor of belief over skepticism (even if it's not irrefutable, empirical proof), and for whom, and the factors within our own persons that might cause that to change against our better judgement.