All words: Toni Tileva
Following in the chilling footsteps of last year’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, Sound of My Voice’s premise is simple enough: couple Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) set out to infiltrate a cult, make a documentary about it, and expose the leader as a fraud. As in Martha Marcy May Marlene, however, reality and truth are eerie, elusive concepts. The process of joining this cult is a disorienting and de-personalizing experience. To be allowed into the cult, they have to assume the identities of believers and, in the process, relinquish their real ones. Needless to say, Peter and Lorna’s journey quickly becomes an honest-to-god identity crisis. What’s more, the line between wanting to do a documentary on a cult and being in one is as enigmatic as the cult’s enigmatic leader. Who is she? Is she just a manipulative hack, or is she really from the year 2054, sent here to impart knowledge to a select group of “chosen ones?”
Co-writers Brit Marling and Director Zal Batmanglij, both Georgetown graduates, bring a mesmerizing, minimalist ethos to this film. In Marling’s other film Another Earth, Marling’s ethereal, luminous presence embodies her walking-wounded character. She uses her considerable screen presence to imbue cult leader Maggie with a livewire intensity and a vacuum-sucking magnetism. Her beauty, as well as her performance, is otherworldly and futuristic.
The Sound Of My Voice is a gripping look down the rabbit hole of joining a cult. It explores the psychology of the process, beginning with the stage Maggie describes as “preparing on the outside,” which is followed by Peter and Lorna’s first encounter with Maggie, to whom they are taken blind-folded and thoroughly cleansed [literally]. They are forbidden from asking questions or making any sudden movements. They are told these precautions are necessary because of the “special”/”chosen” status that is about to be bestowed upon them. The thrust of the message is that one must have a great deal of faith and that faith comes at the expense of reason. In one of the movie’s most engrossing, stomach-turning scenes, Maggie likens the eating of an apple to the ingestion of reason and logic, which is bitter. Reason must literally be purged from the minds of the cultees; by throwing up the apple, their minds are full of blind devotion instead. She demands that everyone “stop thinking and start feeling.” In that scene, however, the viewer also gets insight into the predatory, abusive, and manipulative nature of the relationship.
Marling and Batmanglij’s script does a phenomenal job of asking the tough questions about who joins cults. Peter initially thinks these people are weak and looking for meaning. Despite Lorna and Peter’s superficial veneer of normalcy and their supposed superiority over the other members, they are ultimately brought here for the same reasons, and are no less “damaged” than the cult members, or anyone else. Peter and Lorna’s complaints may add some levity to the matter, especially when they bemoan getting drunk at art installations and compare their life to an episode of Entourage. Still, their search for meaning belies their sweeping generalizations about the cult members. Through their heroes, Marling and Batmanglij shows us these people are not merely damaged people doing damning things.