"Somewhere in the Valley there's a woman in a basement who claims to be from the future. And she's amassing followers." So says Peter (Christopher Denham), a substitute teacher and aspiring documentary filmmaker, late in The Sound of My Voice, summing up the film's premise.
Auteurs rarely come in actor/writer form, but perhaps that description fits The Sound of My Voice's Brit Marling, a striking young actress whose second feature as a co-writer and co-star is, like her first, 2011's Another Earth, an intriguing mix of indie realism and (potential) science fiction.
The Sound of My Voice has one of the better opening sequences in recent movie memory, as young couple Peter and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) follow a set of instructions into the two-car garage of an ordinary home. There, a man meets them, brings them inside, has them bathe and change into medical robes, binds and blindfolds them, and transports them to a second home. This secret location ends up being the base of a cult led by Maggie (Marling), an elegant young woman who claims to have arrived from the year 2054 to guide her followers into a troubled future.
As a viewer, you're dropped cold into this scenario, experiencing it with the same trepidation and curiosity as Peter and Lorna, and it hooks you in immediately. We soon learn that Peter and Lorna are infiltrators, trying to make their name by cracking a cult they think could be dangerous, and their attempt to convincingly negotiate the cult's indoctrination process without giving themselves away — or falling under the spell of Maggie's apparent con — is fascinating.
This aspect of the film peaks during a lengthy cult session in which Maggie encourages her followers to vomit up an apple ("of knowledge") they've just eaten, not knowing that Peter had swallowed an electronic transmitter to help record the session via a camera in his eyeglasses. This unnerving scene is suspenseful and, increasingly, emotionally and motivationally complex.
But all of this only makes the film's dodgy denouement all the more disappointing, with mysterious side plots regarding a young girl in Peter's class and an adult woman who, at first, seems unconnected to the cult failing to fully pay off.
The Sound of My Voice comes across as an engrossing example low-budget storytelling. But, ultimately, the film is consigned to prodding the audience with pseudo-mysterious plot points and a would-be enigmatic ending. It's all pretty cosmic, man, as long as you don't investigate it too much.
The sense of having seen something interesting but ultimately unsuccessful is very similar to how I reacted to Another Earth. Instructively, The Sound of My Voice compares unfavorably to another recent indie, the under-recognized, cult-focused feature Martha Marcy Mae Marlene, which takes its subject matter far more seriously and demonstrates how to land a mysterious, unsettling ending.
The Sound of My Voice
Opening Friday, June 1st, Ridgeway Four