dir: Zal Batmanglij
Listen to the soothing sound of my sinuous voice, and I’ll release you from all your troubles, bring you to a new holy place of pure salvation, where bliss reigns supreme and all your mistakes are washed clean… all I need is for you to listen to my voice, obey my every command, and give me all your credit card numbers…
This film is a complete out-of-nowhere thing for me, a flick I knew nothing about prior to watching. It has a tiny budget, and consists mostly of footage shot in the confines of some LA basement.
It’s really well done, for what it is, and what it is, is a story about two people who infiltrate a cult, with the intention of exposing it to the world, or at least to the other freaks in LA. Peter (Christopher Denham) is the driving force behind this, wanting to go all the way to be a journalist, perpetrating some serious undercover journalism with these people. He’s even gone to all the trouble to learn their very jive-turkey secret handshake from the 70s, which takes about fifteen minutes to do properly.
His girlfriend Lorna (Nicole Vicius) is also along for the ride. It’s never explicitly stated, but I guess it’s always easier to get into a cult if you bring an attractive woman along with you, the rules being the same for swingers parties, presumably. She doesn’t seem to be as driven as Peter is. I assumed from the start that Peter had some other personal connection to busting cults, as in, because of spending time perhaps as a Scientologist or in the Movementarians - We love the Leader! - but his need could be something more basic, more primal.
When the flick begins, Peter and Lorna are treated like plague victims or security threats: they arrive at some strange place and are searched, stripped, made to shower and put on gowns, handcuffed, blindfolded, and driven in secret to some place. All the received at first was a phonecall, a voice telling them what to do. Yes, the Sound of someone’s Voice. After Peter does the handshake, the atmosphere seems to become more relaxed, and then they are in the presence of Maggie (Brit Marling), a blonde woman in a gown in LA, which must be a rarity. She’s also trailing an oxygen cylinder, so we know something’s not completely right about her.
It’s not too much of a spoiler, I think, since it comes right at the beginning, that this cult is based on two things, and two things mostly: it’s entirely centred around Maggie, and, Maggie’s authority doesn’t derive solely from just being Maggie; it’s comes from her claim that she’s from the future. The Future!
Yeah, I know. What Ever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? She tells them a frankly unbelievable story about appearing in a hotel somewhere, wrapped in a winding sheet, confused and sickened by everything around her, with the only information at her disposal being a tattoo on her ankle, of an anchor and the number 54.
Naturally, this means she’s from the year 2054, a time when she further claims the world is riven by famine and war, as if the world isn’t currently riven by famine and war. She tells them (not prophesises, but reports the “facts” of her time) in ways that make the scenario sound plausible and palatable to the kinds of kooks who already want to live life off the grid clutching their guns, drinking their homebrewed sodas and stocking up for the Y2K bug-induced Armageddon that they are still disappointed never occurred.
If this sounds implausible to you, dear reader, then it sounds just as implausible to the devotees, and to the rest of us, frankly. It reminded me of those spam emails you get where they don’t even seem to make a basic effort to get the spelling right or even basic grammar as they promise something no rational person could think is true.
And yet people still keep falling for those scams. Why is that?
Well, I remember reading an article which claimed that the worse the spelling and grammar etc are in one of these scam emails, the more certain the scammers are once they get their claws into the people who respond, because they’re assured that the people who took them seriously are complete morons whose greed transcends all other considerations. They need to believe so badly that they’ll believe anything, no matter how obvious it is that it can’t be true.
Maybe it’s the magnitude of that stretch that defines the kind of people who become adherents of cults (not like all the fine, upstanding citizens who worship invisible men in the sky of course, they’re all perfectly sane and sensible people). Whatever the dynamic is at play, however it manifests, what concerns us is what it’s going to do to the main characters here, being Lorna and Peter.
[img_assist|nid=1787|title=It's not sign language, it's cult language|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=450|height=225]
Peter seems to be a fairly buttoned-up person, and practical, not the kind of person who would willingly submit to the strictures and structures of a cult: Maggie is perceptive enough to know this, or at least to see this. Whatever it is that she is, she has the cult leader’s ability to seemingly peer into the devotee’s soul, to rip out that thing that makes them a damaged being, and to rebuild them in an even more dysfunctional model, so as to make them more pliable, more devoted.
A film like this doesn’t work if there isn’t a seduction, of someone sensible being, if only momentarily, seduced by the impossible promise, so that someone, no matter how sceptical, let’s go, to some extent. I have to say that I was surprised by the way it was done here.
Brit Marling does an exceptional job as the leader Maggie of the cult of Maggie. The reason why she’s so ‘convincing’ is that she’s not convincing at all. I don’t think at any stage that anyone believed her story, and neither does she, and that’s the beauty of the bullshit she’s spinning. She’s that person you know who’s not a gifted liar in the slightest, who smiles as they’re telling you their big lie, and yet they somehow convince you anyway.
They convince you because, above all else, you want to believe them. Even when they’re singing you a Cranberries song and telling you it’s from the future, you still want to believe them.
Peter is not a seething mass of resentments, but there is something going on in him that we think we glimpse, but then we become unsure again. Lorna is the practical one, who doesn’t believe in Maggie and doesn’t want to believe in her, and she gets an inkling that matters around Maggie may be even more complicated that we previously thought.
I think this is a really well done, low-key, mostly low stakes flick which succeeds with modest performances and humble ambitions, and it entirely succeeds at them. It does, however, suffer from one of the primary afflictions that permeate the American ‘indie’ film scene, of the kinds of flicks that seem to energise the strange zombies at the Sundance Festival and no-one else around the world, of deliberate ambiguity. Ambiguity is a way of lending an air of sophistication and complexity to a story. It’s also a lazy way to structure stuff so that you don’t have to make a decision either way in the story-telling department. It’s the classic case of having your cake and eating it too.
I’ll take an ambiguous ending over a terrible defined ending any day of the week, but that’s not really the primary competition. You can’t always have it both ways.
The story takes a turn towards the end, where some events that seemed disparate and unconnected (a narcoleptic little girl who always wears a red beanie and obsessively builds stuff; an African-American woman who’s very paranoid about being bugged and searches for them in a random hotel room) come together, but because of the thread of ambiguity, there’s that word again, that permeates everything, it could all have meant one thing, or meant something completely the opposite, insofar as it speaks to Maggie’s true intentions.
The last shot, as a character wonders, really wonders about what the truth is, makes it seem like the answer isn’t the important part. It’s the questioning that matters, and the second we abandon that questioning in the face of charisma, in the face of having all our insecurities and faults washed away in the gentle waves of a leader’s voice, we’re lost, and become Manson Family – Jonestown capable of truly terrible things.
I enjoyed it, but it’s not a barnburner of a flick. It’s something small scale to get you to say ‘hmm’ for a while, and then move on. It makes an interesting contrast with Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, in that Sound of My Voice arguably does exactly the same thing, only at 5 per cent of the cost, and 1 per cent of the ego involved.
Sound of My Voice isn’t going to set the world on fire, but it probably deserved more attention that it got, which was nil. What can I say, I appreciate the fact that talented people make small scale flicks with no chance of recouping their money, because they want to make something interesting.
It’s a feeling that comes and goes, Hollywood, don’t start getting jealous or anything. I like your trashy slutty meaningless side just as much, no, come on, come back, I’ll give you a backrub, oh don’t be like that…
7 times Brit Marling could probably start a cult quite easily in California for realz out of 10
“The Leader is good, the Leader is Great, we surrender our will, as of this date” – sometimes there’s nothing more relaxing that a good chant – The Simpsons