Sound of My Voice
A discombobulating thriller that is very watchable – so long as you enjoy having your head messed around with and the first feature-length film by writer and director Zal Batmanglij. Sound of My Voice walks an unusual, genre-bending line between Mysterious Skin and The Terminator.
Whether it is a realistic psychological drama or a wild science fiction yarn only becomes more uncertain as the plot unfolds, but it undoubtedly succeeds in being an intense, claustrophobic thriller that slowly consumes you, before abruptly spitting you back into reality, loaded with questions, but with very few answers.
It opens with Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius), an oddly matched couple in their late-twenties driving to a mysterious location. On arriving they are led, with silence, ceremony and a persistent hint of menace to a bare basement to be initiated into some form of cult. With a group of other followers they are introduced to the cult’s charismatic leader, Maggie, who is played with captivating intensity by co-writer and rising star Brit Marling.
Maggie recounts to the initiates all of the personal history that she can remember, back to an apparent amnesiac awakening in a faceless motel’s bathtub only a few months earlier. Then, suddenly, her narrative displaces amnesia with a far more fantastical explanation for her forgetfulness.
When we emerge from this suffocatingly atmospheric gathering – all white robes, soft and meaningful speech, and blazing eyes – it is a great relief to discover that protagonist Peter is confidently sceptical of Maggie’s dramatic claims. Indeed, he has infiltrated the cult in a bid to escape his mundane life as an inept teacher by trying his hand at investigative journalism, intending to expose Maggie as a charlatan. In this task, he has the somewhat ambivalent aid of his brow-furrowing girlfriend Lorna.
However, our comfort in the straight-forward reasonableness of Peter and Lorna, seemingly solid and dependable against the disturbing psychological dissonance of the cult scenes, is mercilessly eroded as the film proceeds. Peter’s angry dismissals of the credulous cult members as “weak” and “pathetic” are undermined by his own surreptitious asthma attacks whenever a stressful situation arises. Brief psychoanalytic dips into the pasts of Lorna and Peter, conveyed through shaky handheld camera footage of a chubby five-year-old Peter and a reckless teenage Lorna, reminding us that no one’s perspective is free of bias. Comforting certainties are offered at various points in the plot, but another twist soon wrenches them from under our feet.
We are left with only a rapidly multiplying set of questions. The sincerity or otherwise of characters, the moral status of decisions and actions – none of this is fixed or verifiable once we reach the film’s ambivalent and open-ended conclusion. One thing is certain, though: Maggie’s presence, regardless of whether she is a charlatan or a more mystical apparition, has had a transformative effect on Peter, as his rigidly rationalist outlook is thrown into doubt and he comes to confront some deeply-buried truths about himself.
Thematically, the film is reminiscent of Darren Aronofsky, with its interrogation of the limits of rationalism recalling Pi and The Fountain, but it is shot and composed in a far simpler and more naturalistic fashion. This works well, allowing the key characters themselves, Peter, Lorna, and Maggie, as well as the broodingly disconcerting atmosphere to dominate the film.
However, while the narrative of Peter’s self-development is interesting, our bond with him is never deeply rooted enough to make the film as emotionally affecting as Aronofsky’s work dealing with similar themes. In the end, this is where the film falls down, as the audience is left far more intrigued by the plot’s grander mysteries and so frustrated by their lack of resolution that they are moved by the changes the characters have experienced.
So, Sound of My Voice is not quite the profound personal drama Batmanglij and Marling clearly hoped it would be, but it works very well as a twisting and captivating thriller, with enough philosophical substance to keep one chewing over it for a while afterwards. It is a labyrinth that is definitely worth delving into that comes to UK cinemas on the 3rd of August.
Watch the trailer for Sound of My Voice here: