Intoxicating personalities are all around us. For many, our first experience with such a personality was as simple as with whom we fell in love. Often times, though, a truly intoxicating personality is held out of reach, made maddeningly more captivating through the simple fact that they are unobtainable, otherworldly and ethereal. The most potent of them can steal you away from all that you have known and believe; they have a way of making you feel like you know far less than you ever thought you did. It is at once eye-opening and terrifying. And what's worse, their effect can spread to indoctrinate whole groups of people.
There have been enough highly publicized events of groups taken in by such charismatic folk that the inclination when we hear "cult" is to label them outsiders intent on harming themselves, or worse. Manson, Koresh and Jones – to name a few – have all grabbed headlines, making the word "cult" as fascinating as it is fear inducing. Some cult leaders have relied on sheer charm, charisma and the willingness of their followers, while others have made wild claims about the true nature of their being in order to seduce the susceptible into their midst. One of the many questions 'Sound of My Voice' asks is: Just what would happen if such a person were telling the truth?
Co-writer and director Zal Batmanglij and his multi-hyphenated partner, writer-producer-actress Brit Marling, have teamed up to tell the tale of a small but emerging cult tucked away in a stark white basement of a suburban house in the San Fernando Valley and its enigmatic leader, Maggie, played by Marling. Two young journalists – Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) – are intent on documenting this "dangerous" new cult and exposing Maggie for the sham she is. The film begins with the couple being brought into the group for the first time; the event is as disorienting for the audience as it is for Peter and Lorna. Initially, it’s a lot of wrists bound by zip ties, blindfolded drives through suburbia and showers in strange houses that soon give way to overly complex secret handshakes and strangers sitting cross-legged on wall-to-wall carpeting.
Face obscured by the white cloth draped over her head, Maggie makes her way to the group, towing an oxygen tank behind her. She sits and reveals herself. Some know her face, but for Peter and Lorna, this is the first time they have seen the woman slowly amassing followers. Whether everyone has heard the story or not, Maggie recounts her tale, claiming to have woken in a strange hotel bathtub with no recollection of who she was, or how she got there. After wandering the streets in nothing but a white bed sheet, Maggie gradually began to recall her past. She tells her followers she is from the year 2054, a time when the world is torn apart by conflict and many people have abandoned the cities and struggle to live a more agrarian lifestyle away from the embattled areas that once held so much promise.
It's unclear what Maggie is asking for from her followers, but what she promises is information that may prove useful when the pending strife begins. Maggie is at once a conundrum, often breathing from an oxygen tank, but prone to smoking when the mood strikes her. Her body is supposedly dying, as she doesn't have the biological resources to fight infections from 2012. She sings songs from the '90s, as if they were written in her time. And although she's supposedly there to help her followers, a portion of the house in which she resides is dedicated to an organic garden intended to feed just Maggie.
Peter and Lorna's determination to uncover Maggie's lies is quickly derailed as the enigmatic cult leader sifts through Peter's reluctance to partake in a bizarre ritual that involves eating and regurgitating an apple. Maggie exposes a great darkness in Peter's past after his mother, who we know through a brief, narrated backstory died of cancer when he was still a boy. Maggie coaxes some tears from Peter by recounting a story of how he was sexually abused by the grandparents who took him in. This is a clever trick in the script where an individual's lies and shame might be used to cover up the lies (or truths) told by Maggie. It's possible she learned all of this from some future version of Peter, but, then again, she just as easily could have been calling his bluff.
Adding to the confusion and mystery are two additional storylines involving a young girl named Abigail (Avery Kristen Pohl), who is a student in the class Peter substitute teaches for, and Carol Briggs (Davenia McFadden), a secretive woman in possession of photos of Maggie. Abigail exhibits a very peculiar personality, and an even more questionable home life that is somehow tied to the larger question of the truth about Maggie. Meanwhile, Carol's role in separating fact from fiction is perhaps less of a surprise than Abigail's, but no less integral in creating a masterfully disconcerting final sequence that effectively ties all the narrative threads together.
For her part, Marling does a remarkable job in keeping Maggie in the fringes of the story. She adeptly walks the line between sincerity and telling lies of a pathological nature, so that the audience never quite warms up to her, but never rejects her either. As the cornerstone to 'Sound of My Voice,' Maggie must convincingly be incredibly earnest and someone who can lie straight to your face only to have a plausible lie on hand to back her fictions up. There is enough truth presented in Maggie's words to convince her acolytes that nothing is a lie, even if some missteps manage to fuel her skeptics. It's an incredible balancing act that's as difficult to quash as it is to substantiate, and Marling pulls it off without falling into the easy traps of making her character sinister or angelic.
There is something thrilling going on here, but its not in a "thriller" sense of the word, or as if the film itself were trying to tease audiences with a notion of foreboding and imminent harm. It's the thrilling sense of watching as characters find someone who takes them so far out of their own head that they fail to recognize who they are any longer. It's thrilling to watch as Peter is swept up in all that Maggie claims to be, and how his pursuit to expose her exposes in him a weakness and desire to belong to something more.
Credit Batmanglij and Marling for staying on task, and keeping the central focus free of too many subplots that would have bogged down the story's central focus and diluted the power of the film's final scene. While it renders 'Sound of My Voice' a tad on the slight side – at just 85 minutes – the slim script, coupled with the film's subtle direction and cinematography, help make this a haunting and disconcerting film worthy of the inevitable debate its ambiguity will stir up.
'Sound of My Voice' was shot digitally with some serious thought to the way the film presents itself cinematographically. Released on Blu-ray with a 1080p AVC transfer, the specific visual considerations put into the film by Batmanglij and director of photography Rachel Morrison manage to stand out in a way that address the film's low-budget origins, its stark color palette and some of the more dream-like qualities the film has to offer.
While contrast levels remain consistently good throughout, the picture is deceptively low on texture and detail as the film begins. As Peter and Lorna are initially escorted through the strange suburban house and into its carpeted basement, the image is suddenly rich with both texture and fine detail. A lot of credit should be given to Morrison, as it's not easy shooting scenes with actors wearing all white, against a white background. The image quality here is strong, however, and Morrison manages to keep all of the actor's flesh tones looking vibrant, yet lifelike. Colors elsewhere are deliberately muted, but the effect doesn't reduce the final product to a monochromatic nightmare – just the opposite, actually. Despite the slightly washed out look, colors still manage to come through with good, but not overwhelming vibrancy.
Black levels are used to good effect also. That pesky gradation from grey to black doesn’t seem to be an issue for 'Sound of My Voice.' There are no banding issues present, and even when faced with darker scenes, fine detail is still detectible with no signs of crush.
In the beginning, there is a considerable amount of noise hovering around some edges in a kitchen, but, thankfully, there is only one instance of this happening throughout the film's runtime, so it doesn't really affect the overall picture too much.
Generally, 'Sound of My Voice' comes with a quality transfer that looks nice overall, and is able to produce some impressive images under less than pleasant shooting conditions.
Slapping a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track on this disc might seem like overkill, but it actually provides a great deal of enhancement to the overall mood of the film, and its most intense scenes taking place in the strange basement that harbors Maggie.
'Sound of My Voice' is very much a dialogue driven film, but the lossless audio track brings that dialogue to life with remarkable clarity. Voices are crisp and distinct whether they're in the claustrophobic confines of a suburban house, or wandering through a museum. To that end, environmental ambience plays a key role in the subtlety of the film's audio track, and provides enough depth in certain pivotal scenes to make the experience more well-rounded and structured.
Beyond putting the dialogue through the appropriate channels, the mix here has little else to do. LFE is almost non-existent, but the additional flourishes added to the rear channels do serve the film well. The mix also highlights the film's score, which will be something of a treat for fans of Rostam Batmanglij, who helped his brother out by scoring the film, writing several songs for the soundtrack and performing the song that plays over the end credits.
'Sound of My Voice' flirts with genres by adding hints of science fiction and crossing over into full-on psychological thriller, but never fully commits to either – which is surprisingly to the film's benefit. By holding fast in the periphery of both, and allowing the notion to creep into the mind of the viewer on different levels, there is a wider range of skepticism and believability that was almost certainly intended to be the film's most alluring aspect. Some viewers may find it frustrating, but the ambiguity here creates a far more interesting product than any list of irrefutable answers would have. While the Blu-ray would certainly have benefited from some commentaries, 'Sound of My Voice' is a compelling enough film on its own, presented here on a quality Blu-ray that it is definitely worth recommending.