A Film Like Its Subject: Beautiful, Compelling, Confounding, and Incomplete

Brit Marling is a bright woman, and an admirable one as well. After graduating with an economics degree from Georgetown, she turned down a lucrative career at Goldman Sachs to run off to Hollywood and the allure of the silver screen. Whereas a lesser talent may have accepted the one dimensional horror-flick eye-candy roles she was being offered, Marling took a much different path: she decided to write her own roles. To this end, she partnered up with fellow Georgetown alumni Mike Cahill and Zal Batmanglij, striking the same deal with each: we’ll co-write a screenplay for you to direct, starring me. Another Earth, her collaboration with Cahill, arrived first and was greeted with praise from audiences and critics alike. Marling in particular was lauded as an invigorating force in independent cinema, earning accolades for both her understated performance and for her screenplay’s ability to succinctly distill its unorthodox plot into a neat metaphor for redemption and hope.

Though written and debuted simultaneously, Marling’s collaboration with Batmanglij has taken longer to reach the mainstream. The story of a would-be documentary filmmaker’s attempt to infiltrate a mysterious cult, Sound of My Voice lacks the high-concept premise of Another Earth, which may help explain its lower profile. As the second link in the growing oeuvre of its writer-star, however, it is very much of a piece with its predecessor, confirming Marling’s strengths, as well as highlighting her weaknesses.

In the film, Marling plays Maggie, a serene oracle who claims to have been born in the year 2030. After waking in the bathtub of an unfamiliar motel room with no clothes and no memory, Maggie stumbles out into the world and acquaints herself with the denizens of the seedier parts of Los Angeles, where apparently no one raises an eyebrow at a nude woman wandering about for weeks, clutching a tattered sheet wrapped around her like a makeshift toga, sporadically falling to the ground for hours, stricken with temporary paralysis in her arms and legs. That she has a small ankle tattoo of an anchor and the number 54, however, becomes the local scuttlebutt, and Maggie is sought out and taken in by Klaus (Richard Wharton), a genteel Paul Lowe sort (to wit: Jamie Morgan’s shallow, superficial doc The Workshop) who informs Maggie that she is in fact a time traveler from the year 2054.

Klaus sequesters Maggie in his basement, where she receives oxygen and blood transfusions and dines on hydroponic apples grown in the garage — people from the future, we are told, have developed intense allergies to the chemicals which pollute our air and food. While she recuperates, Klaus begins trafficking folks into his basement to meet Maggie, a process which involves tendering some sort of personal documents, thoroughly showering, changing into generic white gowns, putting on a blindfold, and boarding a van which then takes them to Maggie’s undisclosed location, into which they will be admitted only after flawlessly executing a peculiar patty-cake of a secret handshake with Klaus. The latest recruits to this tiny secret society are Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius), a young couple whom we will later learn are attempting to infiltrate and expose Maggie’s time travel cult. How they heard of and why they cared about a cult whose active patronage before them totaled only half a dozen is unclear. Through a pair of awkward vignettes, however, we will find out that Lorna is a child of privilege (Hollywood producer dad and British model mom) overcoming past addictions and that Peter lost his mother to cancer when he was thirteen because she belonged to a cult which strictly forbade modern medicine from “interfering with one’s fate”. In this regard, the film is dutiful in establishing not only what would draw its two protagonists into Maggie’s cult, but also what would make them susceptible to the lure of such an establishment.

The film also establishes its metaphors well, most notably in a scene of ritual mass vomiting that recalls the physical and spiritual cleansing that one experiences when embarking on an Ayahuasca induced vision quest. To amass footage for their documentary, Peter wears a pair of spectacles which is outfitted with a small, imperceptible camera. Unfortunately, the receiver can only pick up the camera’s feed from a distance of less than fifty feet; since everyone must surrender all of their personal effects before they are taken to Maggie, the only way Peter can record is to swallow the receiver. At their second session, however, Maggie gives each of her congregants an apple. After they have all taken a bite, she tells them that the apples represent all of the indoctrination they have experienced throughout their lives and must be purged. One by one, her disciples regurgitate their apples, until only Peter remains unexpurgated. The quiet verbal offense that Maggie unleashes — calmly, yet insistently — upon Peter provides the film with its most electrifying scene. Poking and prodding into his past with the self-guided certainty of an emotionally malignant psychic, Maggie draws from Peter his most repressed childhood memories; when she asks, “Did he make you swallow his poison?” Peter finally breaks down, losing his composure, his control, and his lunch in equal measure. He is able to fish out and pocket the receiver without anyone noticing, but his core has been shaken and from this point forward, we — and, to some degree, Peter himself — are never quite sure where his convictions lie.

To divulge any more of the plot would rob the film of its more curious surprises. Suffice to say, that as its scope expands beyond its core characters, things become a little muddled. Red herrings pile up, backstories are contradicted or else left completely unsaid, allegiances are shifted, and the entire story slowly begins to feel like hearsay. Much of this is likely intentional; even overlooking the genre’s tendency to throw audiences for a loop, Marling and Batmanglij have stated on several occasions that they view Sound of My Voice as the start of a potential trilogy, which could ultimately justify some hazy details as willful omissions, intentionally obfuscating the truth for the benefit of future chapters. Until this comes to fruition however, I must cautiously and remorsefully chalk it up to unfocused writing and an underdeveloped plot. It’s not simply that the film’s resolution is ambiguous — I have never considered this to be to a film’s detriment. What is problematic are the logical gaps that arise regardless of how one chooses to interpret the final scene. Inciting events in the final third of the film feel rushed and strangely at odds with the rhythm the picture has thus far established, and none of the several possible interpretations of the film’s final moments definitively addresses the mounting inconsistencies that have set the stage for Peter and Maggie’s final confrontation. Another Earth, despite its merits, did occasionally suffer from a certain vagueness, but its plotting never became self contradictory.

What Another Earth and Sound of My Voice do have in common, though, are strong, reserved, and deeply internalized performances from Marling. In Another Earth, her composure was a thin veneer draped over a tangle of nerves that seemed ready to unravel at any moment. Here however, it radiates from deep within — you want to believe her, and can understand why her followers do. And while here she doesn’t have a foil as formidable as Another Earth‘s William Mapother, Denham deserves a great deal of credit for admirably accomplishing the unenviable task of making us sympathize with a character who not only doubles back on logic and better judgment but spends a good portion of the film deceiving both himself and those around him. It is from his vantage that we experience most of what happens in Sound of My Voice, and his changes of heart throughout never feel forced or alienating.

Nonetheless, the film leaves us with a couple pieces left over which simply don’t fit the puzzle. Another Earth had, by virtue of its premise, the luxury of being open ended and speculative. Sound of My Voice does not earn such a liberty, but it chooses to exercise it regardless. Marling shows a lot of promise — and, indeed, already a great deal of talent — as both a writer and a performer. One hopes that as her star rises and she feels less pressure to write scripts specifically to give herself parts, her voice will crystallize and she’ll deliver a resolution worthy of its clever premise.

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