In this age of dime-a-dozen mockumentaries and found-footage thrillers, the urgent phrase "We have to complete this film!" has become both eye-roller and mood-killer. For modern audiences, there aren't too many plot and protagonist propellers more tired than the moral obligation to keep shooting whatever troubling things are afoot. And so it is that Sound of My Voice arrives with a built-in drawback, hinging its infiltration of a time-traveler's cult on a young couple's filmmaking project, and devoting plenty of screen time to arguments over whether or not production should cease. Peter Aitken (Christopher Denham) is a skeptical journalist determined to expose the deception of Maggie (Brit Marling), the ailing leader of a group of L.A. basement dwellers, who claims she's journeyed back from 2054. Lorna Michaelson (Nicole Vicius), Peter's recovering-addict girlfriend, is the accomplice quick to voice trepidation when things get extra spooky. Graciously, Sound of My Voice's footage is never Peter's footage, and director Zal Batmanglij teams with DP Rachel Morrison to make the most of a next-to-nothing budget, shooting generic indoor spaces with a warm glow that's eerie in its comfort. But such a lame device speaks to the crippled ingenuity of this slightly cocky curio, and while the proverbial Kool-Aid has neat ingredients, that doesn't mean anyone should drink it.
Divided into chapters, Sound of My Voice succeeds as a cinematic page-turner, consistently serving up oddities of interest and cutting to black with miniature cliffhangers. It begins with Peter and Lorna's cult initiation, a ritual involving showers and hand claps that every geek has already seen in full on the film's website. The patience and exactitude of such scenes prove captivating, and Marling, whose hooded herald makes her entrance like a most formidable villainess, matches the tone with her plainly angelic timbre. Whether or not Maggie is a fraud is a quandary shared between viewers and characters. Wielding an oxygen tank and unable to eat food not grown on her shady premises, she speaks of an impending civil war, and how only she can deliver her followers to safety. She imparts new-age-y wisdom that's devoured by the impressionable, and in the film's instances of Fear Factor humor, she sets up near-sadistic loyalty exercises, like urging folks to vomit apples and eat earthworms (the almost aggressively obvious symbols don't end there—even Maggie's birthday is October 31st). But does she have any proof? When asked to sing a song from her time, Maggie, in the film's best and only truly brilliant scene, coos a "cover" of "Dreams" by the Cranberries, leaving her subjects in a kind of awkward stupor. Much of what Sound of My Voice wants to be is a film about faith, asking it repeatedly of those on the screen and those watching it. The bummer is there's no real god to worship.
Sound of My Voice's failure is more or less encapsulated in that vomiting bit, which sees everyone purge the forbidden fruit except for Peter, who's swallowed a radio transmitter that's recording all the action. Miffed by his defiance, Maggie eases Peter back on her leather couch of crazy, and psychologizes him to the point of tears, stirring up demons about maternal abandonment and sexual abuse. Without a peep on the soundtrack, it's a scene that keeps you rapt, and yet, its ambiguity about the validity of Peter's breakdown couldn't feel more hollow. This is a movie that lives for teasing out the unknowable, from Maggie's pop-song savvy to a cute gasper of a finale, but it's deeply problematic that the breadcrumbs seem to lead to a brick wall. Marling, who also toyed with high-concept sleights of hand in Mike Cahill's Another Earth (which, like this film, she co-wrote), seems thus far doomed to cook up beguiling ideas with minimal substance beneath. Her shoestring sci-fi flicks may make for amusing post-film chats, and kudos to her and her cohorts for leaving knots untied, but no great psychological depths are being plumbed, which unfortunately, seems to render nil the raison d'être.