Following in the chilling footsteps of last year’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, Sound of My Voice’s premise is simple enough: couple Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) set out to infiltrate a cult, make a documentary about it, and expose the leader as a fraud. As in Martha Marcy May Marlene, however, reality and truth are eerie, elusive concepts. The process of joining this cult is a disorienting and de-personalizing experience. To be allowed into the cult, they have to assume the identities of believers and, in the process, relinquish their real ones. Needless to say, Peter and Lorna’s journey quickly becomes an honest-to-god identity crisis. What's more, the line between wanting to do a documentary on a cult and being in one is as enigmatic as the cult’s enigmatic leader. Who is she? Is she just a manipulative hack, or is she really from the year 2054, sent here to impart knowledge to a select group of “chosen ones?”
Co-writers Brit Marling and Director Zal Batmanglij, both Georgetown graduates, bring a mesmerizing, minimalist ethos to this film. In Marling's other film Another Earth, Marling’s ethereal, luminous presence embodies her walking-wounded character. Her beautiful otherness is appropriately otherworldly and futuristic. Sci-fi tinge notwithstanding, Another Earth was grounded in its human element, yet had enough of a flight of fancy to transport the viewer to a different dimension. The existential “anywhere but here” quest that underpinned is present in The Sound Of My Voice as well. Ultimately, there is this escapist search for meaning the viewer keeps hearing about in both.
The Sound Of My Voice is a gripping look down the rabbit hole of joining a cult. It thoroughly explores the psychology of the process. The stage of “preparing on the outside,” [which includes learning the at-first-seemingly-silly but later on important to the plot elaborate hand signals] is followed by Peter and Lorna’s first encounter with Maggie, to whom they are taken blind-folded and thoroughly cleansed [literally]. They are forbidden from asking questions or making any sudden movements—they are told these precautions are necessary because of the “special”/”chosen” status that is about to be bestowed upon them. The thrust of the message is one must have a great deal of faith and that faith comes at the expense of reason—in one of the movie’s most engrossing, stomach-turning scenes, Maggie likens the eating of an apple to the ingestion of reason and logic, which is bitter. Reason must literally be purged from the minds of the cultees [by throwing up the apple] and replaced by blind devotion. She demands that everyone “stop thinking and start feeling.” In that scene, however, the viewer also gets insight into the predatory, abusive, and manipulative nature of the relationship—when Maggie inexorably extracts the story of Peter’s abuse as a child, telling him how he was powerless then but is not now, the crushing reality of one abuser’s supplanting by another is made starkly obvious. The Sound Of My Voice does a phenomenal job of asking the tough question about who joins cults—at the beginning, Peter is convinced that these people “are weak and they are looking for meaning.” Despite Lorna and Peter’s superficial veneer of normalcy and their seemingly being different from the other members, ultimately, they are both brought here by a search for meaning and are no less “damaged” than the others or than anyone else, for that matter.. Sure, Peter and Lorna’s very hipster/I am so tired of the scene asides add some levity to the matter [ e.g. bemoaning the superficiality of getting drunk at art installations and one’s life playing out like an episode of Entourage], but this search for something substantive and meaningful belies sweeping generalizations about the cult members as “damaged people” doing damning things.