In the fall of 1996, I went to a basketball tournament that my brother was in and sat in the stands with my parents bored as ever. I was eleven and was at an age where I was curious about everything and anyone that I didn’t already know. Sometimes I wonder if I ever grew out of that state of mind. At one point during the game I looked down and noticed a small piece of paper on the wooden bleachers near where we were sitting. On it was an advertisement for something that I never had heard of before. The first thing I noticed when I gazed upon it was an image of what my Catholic upbringing taught me was the gates of heaven; it was two large iron gates surrounded by clouds. Several words and phrases adorned the advertisement including “apocalypse” and “salvation.” Most important was the name of the group that the flier was promoting: Heaven’s Gate. “What is this, mom?” I asked with curiosity. “Oh honey, that’s just something trying to get people to join their cult,” replied my mother. “What’s a cult?” “It’s just a scam to get people to join them and to make people feel like they belong to something by believing in some non-sense,” answered my mother. From that point on my interest in “cults” was piqued. I grew up in a Catholic family, went to Catholic school, and only had friends whose families raised them the same as well. I wasn’t even fully aware of the many fractions of Christianity yet alone other cult groups at that point in my life. All I knew now was that I wanted to find out more. Who was this group Heaven’s Gate? Well, in March of 1997, that name came to me again in the form of a news broadcast when the anchor revealed that 39 members of the group committed suicide in California. Fifteen years later and I’ve never forgotten that afternoon on the bleachers or the news of the deaths, and as a result I find the topic of cult groups fascinating. More importantly, I find it terrifying how easy someone can be led to believe something that could be potentially dangerous (or deadly) with all their heart. The exploration of cults is an interesting subject that has been explored in past films with mixed results. Frequently the movies can come off as silly, but occasionally, a film comes along that not only taps into the psyche of the new recruits but also of the mind-controlling leader as well. Zal Batmanglij’s film Sound of My Voice is the most recent film that asks the viewer to drink the kool-aid and join with the others on a spiritual journey.
Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) are two aspiring documentary filmmakers who decide to reveal the inner workings of a new cult group led by a beautiful stranger named Maggie (Brit Marling). After earning the group’s trust, they are finally allowed into the basement of an abandoned house in the middle of California to meet the other members and their iconic leader. Maggie claims to be from the future and was sent back in time to prepare people for the next stage of life. It’s a far-fetched idea that takes the viewer on a journey questioning his or her own beliefs.
Sound of My Voice was one of two films co-written by the film’s star Britt Marling that debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011. The film Another Earth was the first of the two films and was picked up for immediate distribution and released last year. What film many praised as the more superior of the two was Sound of My Voice. I couldn’t agree more. Though they both have an indie sensibility to them while still exploring sci-fi ideas, Another Earth seemed to hit you over the head with its “less is more” approach to the subject and failed to really give the audience much to work with throughout the film, not to mention pulling a cop-out of an ending in the final seconds before cutting to black. This doesn’t take away from the fact that I still found the film engaging enough and revealed to me a talented new actress in the form of Britt Marling. Sound of My Voice has the willowy blonde returning to the leading role and playing a very seductive and convincing cult leader. It’s a performance that requires her to utilize her vocal prowess as a tool to lead her followers if the title of the film already didn’t convey this to you. Dressed in all white and emerging with a matching white veil obscuring the sight of her face and wheeling an oxygen tank at her side, Marling first appears to the group gently pulling back the veil slightly in a visual that seems representative of the “Virgin Mary.” This scene isn’t indicative of what’s to come. Batmanglij and Marling’s script is less interested in comparing these new-found groups to the religious institutions that have been around for hundreds of years but more concerned with asking the viewer a simple question: if someone told you that they were from the future, would you believe them? The characters of Peter and Lorna begin the film with the task of uncovering her as a fraud, but you begin to question during the film if they too are beginning to share the same faith that others have in this leader. As you would expect, the film moves along in a fashion one would expect given the subject matter. Questions of dedication to the documentary and to each other emerge rather predictably. Thankfully all of the actors sell the material and a couple of side stories are hinted at in a piece meal fashion throughout the film to keep it from sagging in the middle. Where the film soars is in a handful of dialogue driven sequences that showcase the acting talent of Marling and the script that seems to shine a light on the startling reality of the situation. One scene that stands out as making the audience uncomfortable is a long sequence that involves Peter being verbally humiliated by Maggie during a group vomiting session. If it sounds gross you might be more surprised by the humanity conveyed in the scene. As a third party having the curtain pulled back to this world, you find yourself juggling feelings of how ridiculous this all sounds, judging the worshippers for their own insecurities, and questioning what you would do in the situation.
The main issue that prevents Sound of My Voice from fully converting me into a worshiper of Brit Marling’s doctrine is the ending. Not only does it feel rushed – much like what happened with Another Earth – but it felt extremely anti-climactic. The film builds and builds with each meeting of the group. This is all the more accented by numbered chapter breaks scattered throughout the film that felt entirely tacked on in hindsight. Unfortunately the film really doesn’t have as good of a payoff as you would expect from a film that stacked the deck in its favor. Before the film’s finale, you begin to piece everything together, but your expectations are met with more of a potential set-up for a sequel than a satisfying conclusion. Like last year’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, Sound of My Voice provides an insightful look into the mental capacity of followers in a cult group. Brit Marling has once again illustrated that she has a unique voice that translates into an absorbing drama that dabbles with science-fiction conventions.