Cult Science: Zal Batmanglij’s Sound Of My Voice (2011) – DVD review
At once psychologically astute and philosophically flawed, this probes the appeal of cults but comes close to proposing that rational empiricism is just another craze.
Sound Of My Voice
(Zal Batmanglij, 2011)
Typical. You wait years for a film about a cult and then four turn up at once. Against the acclaim accorded to The Master and Martha Marcy May Marlene (and the criticism meted out to Wanderlust), Sound Of My Voice has got a little lost in the mix. This despite it having a claim to being the most radical of the bunch, in that it mounts an (ambiguous) defence for cults not being so bad after all.
That’s certainly not how it starts, as documentarians Peter and Lorna infiltrate a cult to unmask secretive leader Maggie as part of a wider expose of cults. But when they hear her story – an outlandish tale about her travelling back in time from a miserable, possibly post-apocalyptic future – it starts to put doubt in their rational minds.
The result is a film about faith, and control, and the sense that scepticism is as much a psychological shield as blind obedience to a charismatic leader. Making a documentary is in itself an act of achieving control over a subject but, in one spellbinding sequence, Peter’s certainties are stripped away as Maggie deconstructs the reasons for his worldview. In an era where documentarians have become ambassadors for artistic truth, especially in the Sundance-filtered world in which Sound Of My Voice was made, it’s fairly bold to remind us that everybody has an agenda.
Zal Batmanglij’s style mirrors this divide, avoiding a seamless through-line by creating a film whose form and textures are constantly in flux. The characters’ preparations for the cult are rhythmically edited in the patented Requiem For A Dream style of ritual and reputation – but once in Maggie’s basement, scenes play out in long, claustrophobic, theatrical scenes. Add to that numbered chapter titles, voiceover narration and sudden segues to new characters without explanation and the centre cannot possibly hold. What’s going on? The aim is to put doubt in our mind, and the film is elastic enough to preserve its ambiguity to the end.
That puts it on the same playing field as its artier rivals in the new cult subgenre, but there’s still something a little tidy and schematic about this one. Peter’s transformation is a little too on-the-nose; as Lorna points out, it doesn’t take any time at all for Maggie to coax an “emotional orgasm” out of him. And the use of sci-fi tropes risks making light of the subtext that a hunch is worth pursuing over empirical observation. In these days of loony-tunes philosophies taking over American life, it’s a little disheartening to see a film suggesting that it might be therapeutic for a sane man to be swept away by a personality cult.
Then again, Maggie really is a strong personality. Co-writer/star Brit Marling gives herself the kind of role that usually has people screaming about a vanity project but she plays against such implications beautifully. In Marling’s hands, Maggie’s steel is encased in the velvet appeal of her softly spoken pronouncements and her angelic (or ghostly) appearance, and on the film’s terms it is plausible that her followers will willingly eat worms to curry favour. Even in a crowded generation that seems to be throwing up talented young actresses at will – Jennifer Lawrence, Lena Dunham, Martha Marcy May Marlene’s Elizabeth Olsen – Marling is one to watch.