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Premiered at the Sundance Film Festival the same year as her more popular sf film, Another Earth (Cahill US 2011), Brit Marling’s collaboration with newcomer Zal Batmanglij explores the inner workings of a cult religion. Like its sibling, Sound of My Voice (US 2011) is concerned more with the mental [End Page 120] conditions of its characters than with considerations for plot or conclusions or answers; unlike Another Earth, however, Sound of My Voice is not a story of personal redemption or coping with loss, but rather a disturbing examination of how our conceptions of truth are clouded by uncertainty. In this sense, it bears a stylistic resemblance to David Fincher’s Zodiac (US 2007), Iain Softley’s K-PAX (US/Germany 2001) and, in terms of its psychological focus, Bryan Singer’s somewhat forgotten Apt Pupil (US/France 1998).
Sound of My Voice follows Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius), two lovers unsatisfied with their lives who turn to investigative journalism as they work on a documentary about cults. In the opening scenes, Peter and Lorna are given cryptic instructions to a garage, ushered inside by a nameless man (where they shower and change into new clothes) and then blindfolded and trucked off to an unknown location to meet the mysterious Maggie (Brit Marling). There, we learn Peter and Lorna have been ‘training’ for this experience on the ‘outside’, that their final test is an elaborate, somewhat comical secret handshake (which will become important at the end), and that Maggie believes she comes from the future – 2054 – arriving in our time to prepare a select few for what is to come: a radically new world of scarcity. The film traces Peter and Lorna’s relationship, as they get deeper and deeper into Maggie’s cult until even their personal lives begin to unravel.
The psychological manipulation of cult leaders is the film’s central conceit. Maggie (played convincingly by Marling) is sweet and saintly one moment, abusive and terrifyingly aware the next. In one scene, she convinces her followers the apples they are eating are metaphors for all the ugly things society has forced into them, and that it is necessary for them to purge themselves (vomit). When Peter refuses to do so (he has swallowed a wireless transmitter to record the sessions), Maggie exposes his past through a series of suggestive and increasingly specific questions. The scene also demonstrates, more than any other, the talent of the actors involved; Denham (as Peter) grows increasingly uncomfortable beneath Maggie’s gaze, refusing eye contact as she draws out the root of his controlling nature: his mother’s death from cancer and sexual molestation at the hands of his grandfather. Brought to tears, Peter eventually vomits, and Maggie embraces him, suddenly returned to her ‘sweeter’ self.
Therein lies the proof of Peter’s frequent claim that Maggie is dangerous, one he makes because he assumes this cult is like most of the others, where death is the end result; the scene also provides a cogent example of the insidious undertone of the film’s title. Unlike the cults that frequently make the headlines (high-profile examples include Peoples Temple in 1978, Solar Temple in 1994–7, and Heaven’s Gate in 1997), Maggie presents no physical danger. She makes no [End Page 121] claim of ‘ascension’ to a higher plane by way of discarding one’s physical body, nor does she suggest that everyone will die when her future meets our present. Rather, her ability to manipulate her followers with little more than her voice is what gives the film its chilling core. Maggie, like many cult leaders, almost always has an answer for the questions her followers do or would ask, just as she almost always seems able to dig into their inner selves and expose their fears and desires. Marshall Applewhite of Heaven’s Gate fame, for example, was described by his sister as ‘a born leader and very charismatic’, capable of getting people to believe anything (Holliman); he...