Sunday, January 6, 2013

Review: "Sound of My Voice"

Director: Zal Batmanglij
Runtime: 84 minutes

In 2011, the independent scene saw the rise of a potential breakout talent named Brit Marling. Marling's sci-fi drama Another Earth (which she co-wrote) became a major talking point at Sundance, and the film was released theatrically later in the same year, to mixed reception. She hasn't gone unnoticed. In addition to appearing in 2012's Arbitrage, she is set to appear in Robert Redford's next film, and has begun lining up plenty of other projects. Yet despite her discovery, Marling hasn't completely left behind the low-budget indie aesthetic that brought her into the festival circuit spotlight. Like Another Earth, 2012's Sound of My Voice is written by (and stars) Marling, and plays as a drama tinged with loose sci-fi elements. And, like Another Earth, Sound has its problems, even as it marks a progression in overall consistency and narrative intrigue.

If anything, Sound of My Voice is the "broader" of Marling's two indie projects. Where Another Earth used science fiction to explore issues of chance and confronting one's past, Sound is grounded in a more thriller-oriented narrative. Young couple Peter (Argo's Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) decide to to infiltrate a burgeoning cult hidden somewhere in Los Angeles, and then expose it with secret footage. After receiving instructions to prepare themselves, they are led to the cult's heaquarters, where the meet the elusive leader, Maggie (Marling). Maggie claims to be from the year 2054, and though she doesn't know how she's traveled back in time (the film is set in 2010), she's made it her mission to help a select group of disciples spiritually prepare themselves for an upcoming "journey."

What Sound of My Voice gets right is its depiction of the small cult at the center of the story. From the daffy rituals (that handshake if kind of cool, though), to Maggie's vague philosophical posturing, one can see how susceptible minds would be in awe of her. Even as we identify with Peter and Lorna's skepticism (which is present before they even set foot in the cult's HQ), Maggie as a character still casts her own spell as she gently manipulates her blind disciples. This is in large part thanks to Marling's portrayal of Maggie. Accuse the writer/actress of vanity all you want (granted, some of it is probably valid), but in this film she's firmly out to prove herself as more than a pretty face. Her roles in Another Earth and Sound aren't terribly reliant on expressiveness, yet the actress is able to work quiet wonders with her vocal inflections. Maggie's first appearance feels a little too monotone, but the more time we spend with her, the more magnetic the character becomes, even as we continue to hold her story in immense skepticism. 

Yet if Marling's performance gives the film (which only runs 84 minutes) an intriguing center, her work with Zal Batmanglij on the screenplay is less consistent. Unlike Another Earth, which established that its sci-fi conceit was very real in the opening minutes, Sound wades into purposefully uncertain territory. But instead of an intriguing back-and-forth, it's difficult to overcome one's initial doubt in nearly everything Maggie says. Where the film could easily lose its way is when Peter begins to find himself actually entertaining the possibility that Maggie isn't lying. The scene where Maggie gets under Peter's skin is well-played by both actors, but there isn't quite enough grounding the moment to make us question our own doubts. We remain die-hard skeptics even as the movie wants to tease us with 84 minutes of "is she or isn't she?" 

That's why Sound's journey is more compelling than its individual parts, or its destination for that matter. Cult mindsets fascinate us for good reason, and watching Maggie hold such sway over her wide-eyed followers is what makes the film worth sticking with. Maggie displays no overt malice, yet there is still a palpable disease we feel at seeing someone control people so easily. That she mostly does it with such a reserved, soothing demeanor is even more unsettling. 

In the end, however, the flaws of the screenplay do eventually start to build up and, coupled with the ending, prove frustrating rather than satisfyingly mysterious. There's a subplot involving Peter's relationship with his deceased mother that has potential, yet it's handled so quickly that there's no time for it to accumulate weight. We spend so much time with our eyes on Maggie that the deeper concerns regarding Peter and Lorna's identities start to fall by the wayside. Denham and Vicius handle the material capably, but it ultimately feels rather thin. Maggie may ultimately be a supporting role, but it's all too clear that the screenplay cares perhaps too much about her character. 

Even as Sound of My Voice starts to firmly throw some validation to the skeptics, it feels as though it's rushing towards a conclusion, further at the expense of plausibility. Batmanglij and Marling seem convinced that they've earned enough suspension of disbelief that they can throw caution to the wind in the last 15 minutes, and at times it's more irritating that intriguing. Finally, there's the matter of the open conclusion. I won't spoil a thing, but I will say that it comes off as a slightly overblown way of allowing the story to have its cake and eat it too. 

In the immediate moment the ending is compelling, but as time passes and the credits scroll in front of you, the more you feel as though you've just been led on an elaborate tease, rather than an appropriately complex and subtle mystery. Whatever debates Sound of My Voice provokes about Maggie's story will likely give way to quibbles about the film's narrative decisions rather quickly. That doesn't stop large portions of the film from being enjoyable, but it does limit the film. Though more immediately gripping than Another Earth, Sound of My Voice is hindered by issues in its screenplay that make its vague sci-fi pieces feel more like narrative cheats.

Grade: B-

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