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Follow the Cult Leader

MOVIE REVIEW
Sound of My Voice (2012)

Sound-of-my-voice-brit-marling-christopher-denham
Fox Searchlight Pictures

"Sound of My Voice" — the first feature film directed by Zal Batmanglij — is an artsy, indie movie about attractive people and cults. In the shadow of Sean Durkin's "Martha Marcy May Marlene," the subject matter might seem familiar, but Mr. Batmanglij took a markedly different approach. Gone are the quiet, languorous shots — Mr. Batmanglij's film has more urgency, more flashy twists and a healthy amount of science fiction.

The story concerns Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius), Los Angeles hipsters who join a cult in order to obtain footage for a documentary exposé. While "Martha Marcy May Marlene" portrayed cult as commune, "Sound of My Voice" is more in line with traditional cult depiction: the blindfolds, the complex initiation rites, the white robes. If it wasn't for the stained carpeting and sad Ikea lamp in the corner, the whole thing might feel a little goofy. Luckily, a few things transcend the hokum: most notably, Brit Marling, who plays Maggie, the mysterious and enigmatic cult leader. Claiming to be from the future, she weaves tales of a post-apocalyptic utopia while testing the loyalty of her followers. A beautiful, doe-eyed hippie, her movie-star allure is undeniable, calling to mind Julia Roberts if she had traded Hollywood for the Haight.

With Maggie at the helm, Peter and Lorna find themselves entering a more dangerous world than they originally anticipated; and the stress begins to fracture their relationship. (Their fights are plot points; aside from a fleeting view into their respective pasts, character development remains on the shallow side.) The documentary is all but forgotten as Peter becomes more and more interested in whether Maggie's story might be plausible after all. Lorna remains skeptical; the audience is meant to fall somewhere in the middle.

A different and perhaps more serious movie might sidestep the question of Maggie's credibility altogether and focus on Peter himself. He's as much a fraud as she is — an investigator posing as a true believer, toeing the line between reporter and devotee until his belief is no longer an act. Within the film, the dilemma is approached and dealt with superficially, but the question lingers: at what point would any of us give up the burden of autonomy for the comfort of acceptance? Or give up the stress of wrestling with one's humanity for the ease of simply following?

Ultimately, "Sound of My Voice" is more of a thriller than any sort of philosophical meditation; chopped into tight, numbered segments, it has the tone of a particularly gripping chapter book. And for all the subtlety of "Martha Marcy May Marlene," that film ends like many contemporary suspense films: ambiguously and — some might argue — lazily. "Sound of My Voice" is no exception (although we are spared the smash cut), but it doesn't feel like a cop-out. The film drifts away, leaving only eeriness. It's not always clear how seriously Mr. Batmanglij takes his somewhat silly premise — and maybe the not-knowing is part of it — but he is skilled at building suspense. And he does creepy well — very, very well.

SOUND OF MY VOICE

Opens on April 27 in New York and Los Angeles.

Directed by Zal Batmanglij; written by Mr. Batmanglij and Brit Marling; director of photography, Rachel Morrison; edited by Tamara Meem; music by Rostam Batmanglij; production design by Scott Enge; costumes by Sarah de sa Rego; produced by Hans Ritter, Ms. Marling and Shelley Surpin; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 24 minutes. This film is rated R.

WITH: Christopher Denham (Peter), Nicole Vicius (Lorna) and Brit Marling (Maggie).

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