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Sound of My Voice (2012)

Drama Rated R

For a movie about a cult to really work, the audience needs to be indoctrinated. You have to feel the pull of the secretive society onscreen, even if the rational part of your brain screams otherwise.

This is true, I might add, whether the movie is a spoof of cult psychology (Wanderlust) or a serious exploration of it (Martha Marcy May Marlene). If you don’t get the appeal of the kooks onscreen at some level, then the film isn’t going to hold much sway over you either.

Sound of My Voice didn’t lure me in, despite an enticing premise: a pair of aspiring documentarians infiltrate a suburban cult whose leader (Brit Marling) claims to be from the future. At the picture’s start, Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) pull into a nondescript suburban garage, where a towering, emotionless bodyguard gives them a series of brusque instructions. “Be thorough with the soap,” he advises as they’re told to take a shower. So far, so creepy.

Eventually comes the movie’s big moment: our first meeting with Maggie, the group’s leader. It’s immediately clear that Marling and director Zal Batmanglij, who wrote the screenplay together, have made a conscious decision to not make Maggie a larger-than-life figure. It’s a contrarian tactic that I can understand, given the way most movies would go BIG with the role. Polite, with a benign, carpeted basement as her meeting place, Maggie is hardly the domineering, extroverted cult of personality we might expect, and her first appearance is a nice balance of understatement and suspense.

As the movie goes on, however, it seems to have traded in larger-than-life for lifeless. Marling proceeds to underplay her character’s charisma to the point of nonexistence. It’s OK that Maggie is quiet; the problem is that she’s not captivating. Even when Marling tries to turn up the heat – as she does when Maggie is challenged by one of her followers – she simply comes across as mean. More than anything, the group’s meetings have the tenor of a 10 a.m. book club.

At one point, the movie seems to admit to the limitations of Marling’s performance. During a sequence in which Maggie explains to her followers how she found herself in this time and place, the film cuts away to flashbacks dramatizing the action she’s describing. If Marling were giving the performance the movie needed, the camera would have stayed on her face. After all, the scene isn’t about what may or may not have happened to Maggie; it’s about her ability to sell the story.

This lack of charisma becomes a particular problem when the movie wants us to believe that Peter may be falling under Maggie’s spell. Or is he simply taking the ruse to a new level? That’s what he tells Lorna, but after they have a random fallout (their thinly realized romantic relationship is another flaw of the film), we’re left adrift in terms of Peter’s motivations. I’m all for conflicted characters, but only when we understand the reasons why the character is conflicted. Sound of My Voice only offers muddled ones.

The film is also undermined by its structure. The two scenes that work best – that opening and an uncomfortable group session involving voluntary vomiting – also happen to be extended sequences that are allowed to breathe. In these instances, the movie gives us space and allows us to settle in. Unfortunately, the majority of the picture consists of brief interludes, only a minute or two long, which end before communicating much of anything. It’s a jarring tactic, one that works against a movie that should be lulling its audience into a spell.