Sound of My Voice (review)

Sound of My Voice yellow light Christopher Denham Brit Marling

I’m “biast” (pro): I long for smart cinematic science fiction

I’m “biast” (con): Marling’s last would-be smart SF outing disappointed me

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Argh! Actor and screenwriter Brit Marling has done it again! She’s come up with an intriguing science-fictional concept as the basis for an indie arthouse drama — and she doesn’t know what to do with it. I cannot tell you how exasperating this is, to be a lover of stories who longs for something fresh, who particularly appreciates the opportunities that science fiction provides for telling new tales… and to see it all fall so maddeningly short of satisfying.

It’s best to know as little as possible going in — and I do think Sound of My Voice is, despite its failings, worth seeing — so I will be circumspect (moreso than some other critics have been). There is an enigmatic figure living in the basement of an anonymous, ordinary, yet unknown suburban house in Southern California, and drawing about her a small, select following of what can only be called worshippers. Her name is Maggie, and her trusted inner circle is very careful about bringing in new devotees. But Peter (Christopher Denham: Shutter Island, Duplicity) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) have just made the cut, as the film opens, and they are driven — blindfolded to protect Maggie’s location — from one safe house to the otherwise empty tract house where Maggie is in hiding. Sound of My Voice is about the descent of Lorna and Peter into Maggie’s realm.

Who is Maggie? What is the power she holds over her followers? What does she want from them? What has drawn Peter and Lorna to her? Not all will be revealed… and what is revealed is enragingly teasing in a way that can neither be satisfied nor adequately explored, because — as with Marling’s previous indie SF drama Another Earth — it ends just when it starts to get really interesting. If this were the pilot for a TV series, I’d be hooked, and fully expect all the tantalyzing tendrils of mystery to be returned to again — but I can’t get hooked, because there’s no more to come. This is an unfinished symphony, and one left unfinished deliberately, either out of a desire to malciously taunt the audience (I don’t believe this is the case), or a desire to be aesthetically obscure (more likely, but I’m not sure I believe this either), or just out of frustration, to get a half-formed idea Out There and hope some of it resonates with someone.

Whatever the case, it’s maddening.

As Maggie, Marling is mesmerizing: we understand why her followers are so slavishly devoted to her. And Marling is galling, in the best way, so convincingly embodying the calculating scheming of the charismatic cult leader. As cowriter — Marling partners with her director, Zal Batmanglij, just as she also cowrote with her Another Earth director — I applaud her for creating compelling and complex female characters, and for portraying them so very well.

But it’s not enough for a female character to be so much better drawn than we typically see on film. She needs a great story worthy of her. For a goodly while during Sound of My Voice, I was treated to the thrilling sensation that I had no idea where this was going to go, which is so rare and so welcome an experience at the movies, to be caught up in something unpredictable and trusting ourselves to the film, that it will take us somewhere new and exciting. Sound of My Voice betrays that trust, because the people making it had no idea where it was going, either.

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
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