In “Sound of my Voice,” a schoolteacher (Christopher Denham) named Peter and his ex-model girlfriend, Lorna (Nicole Vicius), join a cult with the intent to expose its leader as a fraud. The mastermind is a serious but approachable young blonde (Brit Marling) who calls herself Maggie and speaks to her small flock while draped in lots of flowing white fabrics. She could be the Pilates instructor on the Starship Enterprise. As it happens, she’s come to the brightly lit, carpeted basement of an otherwise empty-seeming Los Angeles home from the year 2054. The oxygen tube in her nose donates an extra pinch of outré science-fiction.
Maggie tells the group her story, which the film shows us as a flashback. You see her pop out of a bathtub, gasping for air, and wandering naked around the city, then you look at all that long, straw-colored hair and wonder whether this woman has come from the future as Daryl Hannah in “Splash.” And did she bring her colorist? Maggie’s stated goal is to bring to the present a kind of spiritual clarity achievable, apparently, only by being herded into church vans, performing elaborate hand choreography, surviving her trust exercises, then, according to Peter, group suicide. Lorna goes for a walk with an older acolyte who says, “It was Maggie who got me to see that human beings belong in the woods and not in condos.”
This sounds ridiculous, but the movie, which Marling wrote with Zal Batmanglij, who directed it, is, in a sense, about divine ridiculousness and ridiculous divinity. For at least a third of it, I sucked my teeth and rolled my eyes. I didn’t believe it. Some of the details feel off. One night Peter has sex with Lorna on his desk, but who makes love near that much expensive technology? It’s possible that Marling and Batmanglij have no idea how the real world works. It’s also possible that they might not care. Any skepticism with this movie begins to mirror skepticism in the cult. And the stroke of brilliance is that psychological suspense is built into the structure of both what’s on screen and our response to it. Can Maggie turn Peter? Can Marling turn us?
One evening Maggie rounds the basement, inviting the group to giggle and cry and eat an apple then puke it out onto the black garbage bag spread before them, the apple being full of symbolic toxins and bitterness. I laughed. This is an acting class that ends in group purification whose punch line involves the return of a tiny device Peter swallowed earlier to record the meetings. I laughed again when a skeptic tells Maggie her song from the future is not actually by a singer called Benetton. That time Marling and Batmanglij are going for comedy.
But in these I also realized I was listening to Maggie bear down on Peter and begin to divorce him from his doubt. The film’s title suggests that Marling knows she has the diction for such a task. Her voice is rich and sweet. The intelligence in it is both soothing and intimidating. You want to please her. You want the warmth of her approval. Sigourney Weaver’s voice does that, but she never got to deploy it this early in her career. Marling is in her late 20s, and, until Davenia McFadden arrives in the middle of the film to open it up and advance the plot, she’s the most compelling person here.
Marling’s previous screenplay was for “Another Earth,” from last year, which she also acted in. It was a less cogent mix of romance, redemption, and science fiction. But with these films, directed by different men, you can feel a vision coming into focus. Her thinking and ideas are gathering real strength. “Sound of My Voice” is a shrewdly inscrutable movie. Even after Maggie asks Peter to demonstrate his devotion in a manner that turns the film into a real thriller, it has no true genre. It’s as much a satire as a mystery, a film as much about art as it is about faith. And Maggie might be as much Lady Gaga and Marina Abramovic – a high-impact performance artist – as she is a figure of oracular salvation. So the spell the movie casts is effective. Even after we know who Maggie is, we don’t.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @wesley_