Sound of My Voice (Zal Batmanglij, 2011)

Sound of My Voice presents itself as a science fiction alternative to contemporary Hollywood cinema’s desire for effect over mood. Far from perfect, Sound of My Voice admirably utilizes its shoestring budget, focusing on developing characters and tone to elevate its material. It works. Here’s a film that adheres to some basic principles of storytelling, where the audience essentially gets hooked from the opening frame to its closing sequence. The picture unfolds like a young adult novel, whereupon it is broken into ten chapters, each fragmented piece functioning as a cliffhanger to build momentum onto the next chapter. Perhaps a bit too convenient a narrative device, it still does manage to keep things compact – there isn’t a wasted moment throughout Sound of My Voice. It’s a consistently moving picture that impressively instills anxiety and a thirst of anticipation from its viewer.

The basic premise is one adopted from most found-footage films. A girlfriend and boyfriend infiltrate a low-rent cult in the San Fernando Valley in hopes of making a documentary out of their findings. The couple is blind folded and transported to a remote location where they meet the cult’s leader, a woman claiming to be from the future. From here, the picture follows the couple as they invest in the cult and its leader. The picture offers a compelling counterpoint to what was seen in Sean Durkin’s impressive debut feature, Martha Marcy May Marlene. In that picture, its central figure’s dependency on the cult was immediate. In Sound of My Voice, the cynicism of its central couple begins to erode as they begin to slowly accept the possibility of its leader being true to her word. To see a mentally solid state begin to falter is a crucial aspect of Sound of My Voice’s gripping anxiety.

Another crucial aspect to the film’s success is Brit Marling’s impressive performance as the cult’s leader. Every aspect of her performance, from her chilling arrival on-screen to her deceivingly soothing voice, demands attention from the audience. Reminiscent of John Hawkes’ performance in the aforementioned Martha Marcy May Marlene, Marling capitalizes on the science fiction elements of the picture to create an ethereal aura to her character. Along with her co-stars Christopher Denham and Nicole Vicius, the triad turns solid material into something exemplary. Comparisons between Durkin’s feature and Sound of My Voice are unavoidable given the similarity in subject matter. And while both pictures exhibit impressive formal finesse, there’s a level of narrative nuance that Durkin achieves in Martha Marcy May Marlene that gives it an edge. But with Sound of My Voice, Brit Marling’s commanding screen presence (and serviceable writing) could lay the groundwork for a promising career.

Rating: 7/10