Films that don’t explicitly reveal the truth of the story take a big risk with viewers’ satisfaction. When done well, this kind of film can be maddeningly satisfying, creating countless hours of passionate discussion between viewers as they try to convince each other of what truly happened. When done poorly, discussion is pointless because of a deficiency in the story itself. Sound of My Voice regrettably falls in the second category, not because it’s a bad film, but because there are two possible explanations for the film and one of them is too outlandish to believe.
Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) are two 20-something-year-old lovers and documentarians, creating a film about cults. After months of preparing, the two have finally earned access to a secretive group led by the mysterious and enigmatic Maggie (Brit Marling). What starts off as an exposé of cults turns into an emotional exploration as Peter seemingly gets taken in by Maggie’s charisma. His relationship with Lorna deteriorates and the documentary all but ends filming. Events come to a head, however, when Maggie asks Peter to kidnap a child for an odd reason. Peter must decide how far he’s willing to explore this cult and if the limits of his faith can complete the journey. After all, Maggie claims to be from the future, and those in the group will be safeguarded for events to come.
And that’s the biggest hurdle for the film. Either Maggie is from the future or she isn’t. Since time travel is impossible, there’s very little suspense to be had. Instead, audiences will shift in their seats impatiently while they wait for their preconceptions to be validated or for the film to shoehorn some kind of sci-fi explanation to make the premise work. It’s not that time travel as a story convention is bad; it’s that Sound of My Voice wants the viewer to remain skeptical about time travel. None of the characters give adequate explanations for Maggie’s story and basic questions aren’t addressed that might give Maggie the benefit of the doubt. As such, there’s absolutely no reason to think Maggie is anything but a fraud. So when something happens that backs up Maggie’s claim, it’s meant to be an epiphany, but that instance alone isn’t enough to counter the doubt that viewers will rightfully have.
Another issue that hampers the film is the nebulousness of some of the characters. Early on, during a group meeting with other cult members, Peter confesses to Maggie that he was molested as a boy by a male family member. It’s a violently emotional experience and a strong performance for Christopher Denham. It’s also meant to be a revealing moment for the character as his girlfriend, Lorna, looks on, learning something new about her boyfriend. But in the very next scene Peter tells Lorna that he lied and made up the story just to satisfy Maggie. It’s unclear what the truth is and it’s never resolved. The little girl that Peter is ordered to kidnap also exhibits some character quirks that are left unexplained. She seems obsessed with building unsettling sculptures with black LEGOs. She may also be the victim of sexual abuse…or simply be the recipient of a doting male figure’s care and medical attention. The point is that audiences are fed information that doesn’t always compute into something comprehensible. Thankfully, to help establish some facts about the characters, the film devotes two short background segments about Peter and Lorna, but these scenes are utilitarian – not artful.
Still, there are several bright spots to Sound of My Voice. For starters, it is deeply atmospheric in its spartan sets. The cult holds its gatherings in an empty home where all the participants are dressed in white. It truly instills a loss of identity and a paring down to the essentials. Contrasting that austerity is Maggie’s inner sanctum full of the bric-a-brac a young woman like her would have. The film also does an excellent job of maintaining the mystery and the seriousness of Maggie’s group. Peter and Lorna (and presumably the other members) must shower and scrub down vigorously before being blindfolded and driven to Maggie’s secret location. Watching this laborious process the first time invites a rare curiosity not found in many movies. Finally, there are outstanding performances throughout, but special recognition goes to Brit Marling who is positively electric on the screen. It’s awesome to watch her whip back and forth from cheerful to serious to oppressive to deeply caring in a single scene.
In the end, however, there are too many disparate elements coming together in an inexplicable way. From the numbers that emblazon the screen to separate the scenes to the odd occurrences that happen throughout, like one character taking another character to a makeshift gun range, Sound of My Voice seems to ask the viewers to make sense of the film on their own. That’s typically not a compelling reason to watch a movie.