Sound of My Voice has some creepy, effective showcase scenes that play well on trailers or clips, but lacks the development and coherence to make it an effective feature length film.

The movie begins en medias res, with a couple following cryptic instructions to enter a house, divest themselves of all tokens of personal identity, shower, put on hospital-like gowns, and submit to being blindfolded and bound as they are placed into a van with others to be taken to another location. Most of us have seen or read enough serial-killer thrillers to feel squeamish as the characters' vulnerability increases.

The fear we feel, however, isn't justified. Once we get past the initial of its mysterious opening, the film has a hard time sustaining the emotions of fear or dread, and it never manages to parlay them into an honest conviction that any of these characters are in real danger. Peter and Lorna are documentary filmmakers who are trying to get footage of Maggie, a mysterious woman living in a basement at an undisclosed location in "the valley." Maggie claims to be from the future, and she speaks cryptically about a coming disaster from which she will save her followers by taking them to a "safe" location.

Brit Marling as Maggie

Brit Marling as Maggie

Individual scenes mirror the structural problem of the film as whole, which is heavy on set up but light on dramatic or thematic payoff. In one centerpiece scene, Peter, who has swallowed an item he doesn't want anyone to see, tries to resist Maggie's attempts to get everyone in the room to vomit (in an object lesson about ingesting spiritual and literal poisons). The tension is real, but when the scene concludes with no real consequence, we feel cheated. The conclusion to that scene foreshadows the conclusion to the film as Maggie calls on Peter to do something that could have life altering consequences for both him and a bystander. For all the dread that leads up to any confrontation, the most severe consequence we see is a skeptic being pushed out of a room by one of Maggie's team.

Sound of My Voice is one of those films that strains to be ambiguous, trying to provide (in true gothic fashion) events that defy immediate explanation but could eventually have rational explanations. The ambiguity can only really be sustained in the absence of actual investigation—by keeping its characters and audience in the dark. So, while necessary for plot purposes, the documentarians' failure to do any sort of investigation when they are away from the cult raises serious questions about their competency and their desire to actually find the truth. The ending is abrupt, and it comes not with any actual resolution but at the point where indeterminacy could not be sustained any longer. Themes of faith, belief, skepticism, and jealousy are all gestured at but rarely in any manner that prompts the audience to think about the film after the action finishes.

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Christopher Denham as Peter, with Maggie

Christopher Denham as Peter, with Maggie

Even with these flaws in the script, the execution is so smooth that the film is successful at creating a hypnotic mood. Brit Marling (Another Earth), who shares writing credit with director Zal Batmanglij, reminds one of a young Laura Dern in the way she delivers her lines with a rhythmic lilt that highlights the contrast between the softness of her voice and the threat in her words. Denham and Vicius are both fine individually, but they have only one major scene together that explores their relationship in any substantive way, and it does better at advancing the superficial themes (we all are different from the persona we project publicly, we all edit and reshape the narratives that explain where we are and how we got there) than it does at revealing anything about the characters that will invest us in their decisions.

Richard Wharton as Klaus, with Peter

Richard Wharton as Klaus, with Peter

Batmanglij and Marling met while attending Georgetown University and the film is a collaborative attempt to make what the former calls an "art house thriller." While very accomplished as a breakout film (although released publicly a year later, it played at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011), Sound of My Voice retains some low budget indie qualities—such as the apparently meaningless chapter number intertitles and the preponderance of interior, location settings. A character who may or may not be a law enforcement officer appears suddenly and without much set up, while a scene between Lorna and a woman from the cult who asks to meet her outside of the basement comes across as the sort of loose end that one assumes will be referenced later in the film but never is.

Maggie addresses her followers

Maggie addresses her followers

Each of these issues points towards a difficulty in stitching the parts together that may be indicative of a bumpy transition from focusing on scene work or shorts in student films to creating larger narratives that are commercially viable. At eighty-four minutes, Sound of My Voice feels paradoxically both stretched and a little slow. The acid test of indie films, though, is whether they make you want to see more work from the talent involved. As a performer, Marling is well on her way to stardom and as a director Batmanglij keeps things visually interesting without drawing attention to the shot making (with the exception of one formally balanced shot between Marling and a young girl that feels a little forced). It would be interesting to see what either could do with someone else's material, because the writing, while showing flashes of sharp dialogue, holds the film back.

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Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. Peter claims that Maggie is dangerous because she is amassing followers who believe her. Is Maggie dangerous? To whom is she a danger?
  2. Maggie says: "Most deaths are suicides. Some are just more gradual than others." What does this quote mean and how does it relate to Peter's argument that he and Lorna must go "all the way" with their investigation?
  3. Maggie responds to one skeptic who asks her to tell the future by showing that he could not prove he was born. What is the difference between reasoned faith and gullibility? How is religious faith different from the belief practiced by those in the cult?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Sound of My Voice is rated R for language, some brief drug use, and sexual references. By contemporary standards the violence and language is relatively mild, although there is one scene in which a child appears to be in some danger and another which a woman points a gun at another woman. Marling's character is seen falling out of a bathtub with her back to the camera, and the two reporters are shown showering (individually) in montage scenes related to their preparation to meet the cult. Although what is shown in terms of violence and sexuality is minimal, the implicit threat of danger that pervades the film may disturb younger viewers.

Our Rating
2 Stars - Fair
Average Rating
(4 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
R (for language including some sexual references, and brief drug use)
Directed By
Zal Batmanglij
Run Time
1 hour 25 minutes
Christopher Denham, Nicole Vicius, Brit Marling
Theatre Release
August 03, 2012 by Fox Searchlight Pictures
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