At the heart of Sound of My Voice is a simple theme – yearning for a simpler world. Where Maggie, a character in the style of many a cult leader before her, claims to comes from, the world is simple. There has been a large civil war, leading to the world almost starting again. Most people aren’t able to access technology, leading to less use of things like MP3s and more live music. Ultimately, it’s not explained much, but we know one thing – it’s simpler, more community oriented. Sound of My Voice has a fairly standard narrative and may peter out a tad from time to time – people go undercover in a secret society, intending to take them down from the inside but one of them gets sidetracked and loses the original aim, leading to the other one continuing their original objective with some assistance from an outside entity – but the spark is always there that keeps this lo-fi thriller alight. Yep, you’ve definitely heard it all before. However, what is done with the material, the interesting way in which it is handled is what elevates it from the religious cult thriller we’ve seen many times before. Like Batmanglij’s second film The East, one of the things that makes it so intriguing is how objective it is, something I described in my review of the former as this: “It’s pretty difficult to make a film like this, where the dialogue doesn’t become laughable and everyone doesn’t sound like stark raving lunatics, because sometimes the idealistic, radical behaviour can make them presented as not real people. But Batmanglij and Marling make the subject matter understandable, transforming previously radical ideals from something you never would have thought of before/thought was terribly unhygienic to something that evokes thought later.”
One intriguing outcome of this level-headed look inside a fictional cult in Sound of My Voice, however, is the idea that arises from it – the simple, utopian idea that they’ve striving for is something we hear people bemoan everyday, wishing for not as much technology; and what makes groups like these harmful is the way they go about it. This dissatisfaction with society, a restlessness is a pattern I’m sensing in Batmanglij’s work. Choosing young people who are at a crossroads in life – a teacher who is being an investigative journalist and infiltrating Maggie’s cult, making a documentary on it in Sound of My Voice; a young operative for a private intelligence firm that deals solely in big corporations tasked with bringing down the titular anarchist group but instead sees everything she’s learnt be challenged in The East – who are at odds with the structured, governed life they live and the freer, more creative one they experience partially and opens their eyes to another way of life. For this reason, Maggie’s ‘story’ of how she came to Earth can be interpreted not just as…well, the fiction she tells her followers of being from the future, but also a moment of realisation, a epiphany where one realises the inadequacy of the world. It’s a theme I’ve seen a lot in the films I’ve watched lately, striving for stillness and detachment after a saturation of constant connection and company, yearning for solitude and escape from the image that has been constructed and broadcast to the world, documenting every moment of life.
In an intense performance, Brit Marling embodies a vulnerability, like the people who have been lured into the cult, but cloaked in charisma and ferocity. It’s possibly the most ‘showy’ role she’s been dealt yet, with a multitude of strong emotions and big scenes and a certain mystery that comes with playing a person who is almost certainly hiding something. Employing a vignette structure is helpful here, as Batmanglij and Marling are able to maintain a seed of doubt, an uncertainty as to if Maggie’s mind and behaviour reading powers are actually that excellent or if the characters had told them a story about their life in a moment we’re not privy to. On another note, however, just like Batmanglij’s and Mike Cahill’s other films, the resourcefulness, the amount of production value that is here for such a small amount of money is astounding. It may take the usual cult story approach – charismatic leader draws in a bunch of vulnerable people – but, as we hear much too often in the news, these things actually do happen. All over the world, there are people who are very smart, using their intelligence and charisma to spin the ultimate works of fiction and seduce people to believe the fantasy they tell. And it’s usually exactly that – a fantasy, built in a place where people can’t find them. An exercise to gain control to hide from something else. It’s here that Sound of My Voice poses its most interesting observation – do these masters of spin, the cult leaders, actually take the fantasies they tell seriously? Marling and Batmanglij, in one of the films most intriguing and revealing scenes, where Maggie, when letting her guard down, doesn’t maintain her position at all, argue that maybe not- that, maybe, their work is done when spinning the story, that once people are drawn in, hypnotised, the rest is out of their hands, the remainder resting with how far the followers are willing to go and be controlled. Rating: 3.5/5