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Cult Favorite

by Ross Douthat

A review of Sound of My Voice

Last summer in these pages, I reviewed Another Earth, a slight but haunting science‑fiction fable starring a young actress named Brit Marling, who also co‑wrote the movie’s screenplay. On a barebones budget, her movie created an interesting genre mash‑up, combining an only‑in‑the‑movies personal melodrama (a grieving Yale professor falls in love with the young woman who accidentally killed his wife and daughter in a car wreck) with the Twilight Zone scenario of a mirror‑image Earth suddenly sweeping into our orbit and looming up, with all its counterfactual possibilities, in the southern Connecticut night sky. The results were uneven but interesting. Another Earth wasn’t a complete work of art, but its strengths suggested that critics and audiences should keep an eye out for whatever Marling ended up doing next.

What she has done, it turns out, is co‑write and star in yet another slight, haunting, science‑fiction‑tinged provcation — but a better one this time, with a sharper script and tighter, less self‑consciously pretentious plot. Titled Sound of My Voice, it features Marling as the charismatic leader of a Southern California cult, whose devotees gather in a featureless Angeleno basement to be purged of their weaknesses and prepared for what she tells them is coming next: a civilizational collapse, a period of civil war, and an opportunity to recover the kind of authentic and organic life that a soulless modernity has stripped away from us.

This message no doubt sounds like the usual “Age of Aquarius meets the Mayan Apocalypse” patter, but there’s a twist. Marling’s Maggie doesn’t just claim to have foreseen the coming American dégringolade; she claims to have lived it, and then traveled backward through time, à la John Connor’s father in The Terminator, to shepherd a group of particularly important people through the fire to come. To corroborate her story, she has an ankle tattoo marked with the year she comes from (“54” for 2054) and an immune system so weak — time travel is hard on the body, apparently — that only an oxygen tank and a steady diet of greenhouse‑grown, toxin‑free food prevents her body from failing altogether. More important, she has a gift reserved for grifters and messiahs: the ability to make the incredible seem not only plausible, but almost self‑evidently true.

Into Maggie’s world comes a young couple, Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius), whom we meet in the movie’s tense opening scene, when they’re driven blindfolded from a rendezvous point to the cult’s basement headquarters, instructed to strip and shower and change, and then ushered into the first of several initiation rituals. Only after Marling’s guru has welcomed them as potential acolytes and revealed her near‑future origins do we learn the truth about them: They are not spiritual seekers but would‑be documentary filmmakers, with a plan to clandestinely tape their indoctrination and use the footage for an exposé.

Their plan, inevitably, does not exactly go as planned. Peter and Lorna have baggage, it turns out: He, an über‑rationalist, is working out issues having to do with his late New Agey mom, and she, a former party girl, is using his ambition as her own lifeline out of anomie. And Maggie, either because she has the dark gifts of a Jim Jones or because (dum dum dum!) she’s really who she says she is, exerts an unexpected pull on both of them, even as the personal excavations required of her followers open cracks in their relationship.

These cracks widen amid an atmosphere of mounting dread, spiked with an occasional dose of dark comedy. (Wait for the moment when Maggie is asked to sing a popular song from 2054, and reluctantly obliges.) The script, which Marling co‑wrote with Zal Batmanglij, the movie’s director, keeps the unease neatly balanced between the natural and the paranormal, so that we can’t be sure what kind of story we’re actually involved with. One moment we’re watching as Lorna is taught target shooting by an older cult member, suggesting that we should expect a purely secular, Waco‑ or Guyana‑style endgame for the cult. The next we’re watching a preteen girl — one of Peter’s students in his day job as a substitute teacher — build creepy towers out of black Legos, as though she’s picking up signals from some supernatural source.

The resolution, when it comes, doesn’t necessarily resolve anything. As she did in Another Earth, Marling chooses to cut things off abruptly, leaving some of her narrative balls hanging in the air. Because Sound of My Voice is a more confident and skillful movie than its predecessor, though, the studied suddenness of its last scene feels like more of a copout. Marling is a serious talent, and she’s building an impressive résumé by lavishing her gifts on small movies that raise the biggest questions. But we’ll know about the scope of those gifts when she takes the plunge and makes bold to answer one of them.

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