Cults in Sci-Fi Movies: SOUND OF MY VOICE (2011)

Theatrical poster for SOUND OF MY VOICE (Fair Use asserted)
Theatrical poster for SOUND OF MY VOICE (2011)

Today’s look at Sound of My Voice (2011) expands Loud Green Bird’s “Cults in Horror” series to include science fiction. This movie, directed by Zal Batmanglij (his first feature film) and co-written by him with actress Brit Marling, has a sci-fi premise. It tells a dramatic mystery story with thriller elements. Although it does not qualify as a horror movie, it does feature a creepy modern-day cult.

Brit Marling as Maggie in SOUND OF MY VOICE
Brit Marling as Maggie in SOUND OF MY VOICE

The way that the cult theme drives the story in Sound of My Voice is similar to its role in the plot of Faults (see my review). In both films, the mystery centers around whether or not the central cult figure’s non-conformist beliefs are true. In Sound of My Voice, that figure is Maggie (Marling). Her outlandish claim is that she’s a time traveler from the future. Two documentary filmmakers, Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius), infiltrate Maggie’s cult to make a cinematic expose about her.

The film starts fast, in the middle of things, without needless exposition. As the situation becomes clearer, the tension builds. At first, its sources are the paranoid practices of the cult and the anxiety of the two filmmakers about being discovered by Maggie and her inner circle. Then Maggie’s charisma and uncanny insights have an effect on Peter that starts to put a strain on his relationship with Lorna. This subplot eventually contributes as much tension to the story as does the cult itself. Both Peter and Lorna have baggage from the past that resurfaces as the stakes get higher.

Peter (Denham) does the secret cult handshake with Klaus (Richard Wharton)
Peter (Denham) does the secret cult handshake with Klaus (Richard Wharton)

The cult has a “secret handshake” that might seem silly at first, but don’t let it diminish your interest. In fact, it’s a major plot point. Is it evidence that the cult is a joke of a hoax? A song “from the future” that Maggie sings to her followers raises the same question. The fact that she has to live in the basement of a house (as we learn, in an undisclosed location in the suburbs of L.A.) where her inner circle keeps her alive with special medical and nutritional regimens is another strange feature of her character. All of these conditions make Peter and Lorna suspicious of Maggie and her cult. They worry that it’s a setup for a mass suicide event (as in The Sacrament). But things get more complicated than that.

This is a story that could fail in a major way with the wrong cast. But Marling, Denham, and Vicius are convincing in their starring roles. The supporting cast is also good — particularly Richard Wharton, Alvin Lam, and Constance Wu. Then-child actor Avery Kristen Pohl makes her feature film debut as Abigail, an unusually gifted student in Peter’s elementary school class (teaching is his day job). Abigail plays a special role in the film’s finale.

Sound of My Voice is divided into chapters separated by black title cards that display the chapter number only. This structure works well as an unobtrusive organizing tool for the story. Many of the shots are set in shadowy interiors or nighttime exterior locations, adding a sense of foreboding and claustrophobia. There is no establishing shot at the opening. There are also few exterior long shots. This keeps the audience disoriented and off-balance in much the same way that Peter and Lorna are.

Maggie’s followers bow down to her at Peter and Lorna’s first cult meeting

Thanks to Britt L. of Eclectic Pop for recommending that I include this film in Loud Green Bird’s ongoing cults-in-cinema series. I re-watched it via Amazon Video; it’s also available on DVD from Netflix. Although I’m automatically biased in favor of the work of any filmmaker who has “Batman” in his/her name, this film stands on its own merits. It’s a recommended watch — I gave it 4 out of 5 stars on Letterboxd. For my thoughts on a more recent Batmanglij/Marling film, read my review of The East (2013).

Watch the trailer on YouTube.

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