Destined to be a big favorite with those who follow the “next big thing” in indie film festivals, Zal Batmanglij’s Sound of My Voice is a lot like other “next big things” we’ve seen before. If you took last year’s Another Earth (which, not coincidentally, was co-written by Brit Marling, who co-wrote this) and combined it with last year’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, you’d get something like Sound of My Voice—though Sound of My Voice is certainly more compelling than the former and less obnoxious than the latter. Here we have a kind of science fiction, but not really. It’s kind of a film-noir look at cults, but not really. It does, however, look like it was made for a buck and a quarter and is sufficiently ambiguous to be taken as profound.
The film is a mere 85 minutes long (which is a blessing in many ways), yet is crammed with essentially four stories—at least two of which are underdeveloped and under-written. The center of it all is Maggie (Brit Marling), a woman who claims to have returned from the future to collect a group of people to prepare for what is coming. Her evidence is—at best—sketchy and her presentation of herself isn’t exactly consistent. In her story, she woke up in a hotel room, naked and unable to remember anything other than her name and her birthday. Only slowly—and seemingly with the help of the enigmatic Klaus (TV actor Richard Wharton)—did she realize her past and why she was here. This led her to establish her decidedly low-rent cult in the basement of a house so bland it might be from a Paranormal Activity movie. Whether she’s a fake or the real deal, it’s never clear just what the purpose of the cult is.
Infiltrating this cult—with an eye toward making a documentary—are Peter Aitken (Christopher Denham) and Lorna Michaelson (Nicole Vicius), a young couple with issues of their own that the film barely touches on. The film, in fact, begins with their admission to the cult on an apparently trial basis that finds them showering, donning white robes and being transported blindfolded to the house with the basement. After giving Klaus the most absurdly involved secret handshake ever, they’re allowed to meet Maggie and a small group of her followers. The question quickly becomes whether or not they—and more specifically Peter—are being sucked into the cult rather than trying to expose it.
Off to the side, there is a mysterious woman, Carol Briggs (Davenia McFadden), who turn out to be some kind of Justice Department agent. (I suppose that’s why there’s an arbitrary scene of her checking a hotel room for bugs.) And then there’s an odd little girl, Abigail Pritchett (Avery Pohl) who falls asleep a lot, builds strange structures out of black Legos, and just happens to be a student in the class where Peter is a substitute teacher. All these characters will sort of come together before the film ends—or, more correctly, stops.
All of this is interesting enough while it’s going on, and the film manages to create a sense of unease with its generally inconclusive scenes—but that unease never becomes the sense of dread I think the movie was aiming for. I’m also reasonably sure I wasn’t supposed to laugh every time the secret handshake popped up (especially, since it turns out to be important), but I did. The direction by newcomer Zal Batmanglij is detached to the point of indifference. Much like scriptwriter Marling’s earlier Another Earth, there’s a twist ending that leads to abrupt ambiguity. Is this profound or is it another case of a magician with a top hat, but no rabbit to pull out of it? That’s going to be up to the individual to decide. Rated R for language including some sexual references, and brief drug use.