Tuesday, May 1, 2012

SOUND OF MY VOICE is Interesting Indie Sci-Fi


- I was first made aware of SOUND OF MY VOICE - the new pseudo-sci-fi thriller from writer/actress Brit Marling and director Zal Batmanglij - at this year's Wonder-Con, where I attended a panel for the film. The panel was incredibly effective at getting all of us hyped for this under-the-radar, low-budget indie - it really was some brilliant marketing at work. Marling and Batmanglij showed us the first ten minutes of the film - which is an incredibly tense, mood-setting, eerie, and unsettling ten minutes. It's an opening that leaves you with all sorts of questions, and definitely leaves you intrigued. In those first ten minutes, we see two young journalists preparing for a potentially dangerous undercover project. They've joined a cult, in the hopes of exposing it as something dangerous and malicious. Part of that means debunking the principle on which it's founded - the notion that its leader, the mysterious and alluring woman named Maggie, is in fact a time-traveller from the year 2054. We of course understand the skepticism. But as we meet Maggie, and hear her tell her story to a group of followers in a San Fernando Valley basement, we begin to wonder: is she for real? It makes for an uber-compelling setup. And in many ways, the whole movie feels like a great premise in search of a payoff. This would be an amazing pilot episode of a TV show. As a movie, it's absorbing, hypnotic, and tension-filled, but it also feels a little thin given the potential of that initial setup.

Sound of My Voice works as well as it does thanks to a fantastic performance from Marling as Maggie. Marling is new-agey, edgy, seductive, sickly, and vaguely-dangerous. She's exactly the kind of person who could believably inspire a cult, and maybe even convince a wayward soul or two that she's some sort of messianic figure from the future, come back to save mankind from itself. Maggie can sometimes be a silly character, but the movie has an awareness of that, and plays off the absurdity of some of what she espouses to her followers. The movie is willing to laugh at itself a bit (there's a hilarious bit I won't spoil, except to say that when Maggie sings a song that's popular in the future, the result is, shall we say, surprising). It goes a long way towards the film avoiding becoming too pretentious or sliding into self-parody.

I also thought that the other two central performances were really strong. Christopher Denham is excellent as Peter - doggedly determined to expose Maggie, yet not immune to her charms. And Nicole Vicius is also quite good as Lorna, Peter's former party-girl girlfriend who goes along with his plan, but who's got some serious doubts about the whole thing. The two have a nice chemistry, laced with tension, and they bring a grounded element to the film that helps offset some of its more over-the-top ideas.

It should be noted that the movie is divided up into ten distinct chapters, with title cards separating each. Apparently this was done because the film was originally envisioned as a multi-part webseries. It works perfectly fine as a film from a pacing / flow perspective, but I did question keeping the chapter structure intact, as it took me out of the film a bit each time things were broken up by another title card. That said, the chapter breakdown means that each portion of the film ends with some sort of interesting, cliffhanger-ish exclamation point, which is pretty cool.

But while the movie maintains an edgy, intense atmosphere for its duration, the plot is pretty thin. The problem is that there's just enough plot to make for a great Twilight Zone episode. And that's really what this is, in many ways. A great Twilight Zone episode stretched out to movie length. The movie builds to an ending that is a nice, TZ-style twist, but for a movie, a TZ-twist may not be enough to pay off 90 minutes of build up. Now, clearly this is not intended as a plot-heavy movie, and so that twist is more of a bonus than anything else. But ... why set up such an intriguing premise, and then just barely explore the underlying mythology? I didn't need a lot, but all the future / time-travel stuff is talked about only in such vague terms that it leaves you hungry for something, anything to sink your teeth into (for example: it's mentioned that the hippie dude who first found and saved Maggie was out seeking time-travellers and recognized her as one when he found her - um, what? please explain!). Psychologically, the movie does better - with some really effective - and at times disturbing - scenes of the group-think and submissiveness that permeates Maggie's cult. Like Martha Marcy May Marlene, the film manages to disturb you precisely because the trappings of the cult are relatively mundane. The people in it seem somewhat normal, just slightly off and spiritually hungry. Still, because Peter and Lorna are "undercover", we don't have a real entry-point into the cult or an understanding of why its actual members were drawn to it. And that is an issue, because we end up only viewing Maggie's group with the same detachment and skepticism as Peter and Lorna. I mentioned Martha Marcy May Marlene, and that movie was so brilliant in part because it took us inside the head of someone who was suckered into and drawn towards a cult. So even though Brit Marling paints Maggie as a charismatic and psychologically manipulative figure, we still have a lot of questions about who the people are who legitimately follow her, and why.

All in all, I enjoyed SOUND OF MY VOICE, and it's always cool to see a low-budget movie with a unique voice and some far-out ideas. Certainly, Marling has shown herself as an independent-minded filmmaker who isn't afraid to shake up her psychologically-driven indie flicks with some sci-fi high-concepts. I like that, and it's something I'd love to see more of. Ultimately though, the film never seems to fully take advantage of its cool premise. For that reason, it feels like an exercise or experiment in low-budget genre filmmaking, more so than it feels like a fully-formed movie. It made me wonder what Marling and her crew could do with a big budget, or in a different format like a serialized TV show. How interested they are in that sort of thing though, I don't know. For now, they seem content making these interesting little what-if? stories. When those stories - flaws and all - turn out this interesting and tension-filled though, it's hard to fault them.

My Grade: B+

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