Starring: Christopher Denham, Nicole Vicius, Brit Marling
Directed by: Zal Batmanglij (debut)
Written by: Brit Marling (“Another Earth”) and Zal Batmanglij (debut)
Aside from the fact that most head doctors regard a majority of them as having a few bats in their belfry, cult leaders — whether factual or fictional — usually share similar attributes with one another in their attempt to convince committed followers to drink the proverbial Kool-Aid. From disturbing leaders of the past like Jim Jones and David Koresh to cinematic ones like John Hawkes’ intimidating alpha male in last year’s compelling film “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” the men (and, yes, most are men) in these positions of power have some pretty persuasive personalities that allow them to rule the roost.
It’s one of the reasons why when female cult leader Maggie (Brit Marling) is introduced in the independent thriller “Sound of My Voice,” there is automatic intrigue that comes along with the uncharacteristic role simply because it’s not something seen too often in film or the real religious underground. Maggie, however, is more than a blonde-haired, blue-eyed beauty. Like any of the leading men who have come before her, the illogical explanations and information she offers to gain the trust of her congregation is believable because Maggie makes believers out of everyone. Part sci-fi phenom, part subtle intimidator, she is the strongest asset of an otherwise indecisive and transparent film.
Meeting Maggie for the first time in “Sound of My Voice” are Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius), a couple in the San Fernando Valley whose sudden interest in investigative journalism leads them to a bizarre group of sanitized, hospital gown-wearing devotees and their ambiguous queen bee. Upon infiltrating the cult to secretly record its inner workings for a documentary, Peter and Lorna learn that Maggie, a self-proclaimed time traveler from 2054, has journeyed to the present day to prepare her selected sect for the coming apocalypse. Meanwhile in another part of L.A., an odd little girl spends her time playing alone in her room with black Legos. The separate stories don’t cross paths until much later in the narrative and the big reveal isn’t as clever as one would hope.
“Sound of My Voice” isn’t so much about a cult as it is about a cult leader and her followers’ willingness to accept what she is saying as the truth. None of the cult members beside Maggie are fascinating in the least bit and their mission is about as vague as a modern-day scientologist’s explanation of Xenu and the Galactic Confederacy. If these men and women were gathering in the basement of a house to play Parcheesi rather than sharing spiritual beliefs and putting their fearless leader on a pedestal, it wouldn’t have made much of a difference.
With a script written by Marling (her inspired sci-fi drama “Another Earth” released last year, which she also wrote and starred in, is infinitely better) and first-time director Zal Batmanglij, “Sound of My Voice” will capture one’s imagination in smaller doses much like an episode of the original “Twilight Zone.” Dragged out into feature form, however, reveals just how little substance there is behind all the strange characters and existential discourse.