A fine line can exist between legitimate psychotherapy and the manipulative mind games of cult groups. In the indie psychological thriller Sound of My Voice, enigmatic leader Maggie (Brit Marling) forces potential followers to face their repressed emotions and dark secrets. At first we don't know whether Maggie's trying to make potential disciples dependent on her, or genuinely helping them work through emotional damage.
Director Zal Batmanglij, who co-wrote the film with Marling, presents Sound of My Voice from the perspective of two characters with their own hidden agendas. Peter (Christopher Denham) and his girlfriend, Lorna (Nicole Vicius), purport to be true believers, but in actuality want to make a documentary film about cult groups. As the pair infiltrates Maggie's circle and tries to uncover her secrets, Sound of My Voice builds suspense and explores the personality problems that make people vulnerable to cults.
Generic suburban garages and unfurnished, brightly lit basements never seemed so sinister as in Sound of My Voice's early scenes, when Peter and Lorna submit to the cult's security procedures. They change from street clothes to hospital gowns, wear blindfolds, ride from one house to another, and even go through a comically elaborate secret handshake. Are the cultists genuinely concerned for their safety, or simply trying to make new members feel vulnerable?
"No sudden movements or questions for tonight," announces an older, professorial adherent when the new recruits meet Maggie, who turns out to be a beautiful young woman with complicated health problems. A flashback shows Maggie waking up in a motel bathtub with no memory or personal effects. To avoid spoilers, let's say that if what Maggie reveals is true, her origins are scientifically impossible and to follow her requires an enormous leap of faith.
Peter and Lorna enter the situation equipped with miniature cameras and muckraking instincts, but quickly get in over their heads. They're not professional journalists but ambitious amateurs — Peter a substitute teacher and Lorna a recovering addict from a well-connected Hollywood family. Peter asserts that Maggie's a con artist and bears a grudge, since his mother died of cancer while obeying a New Age doctrine that forbade medical treatment. Maggie's manipulative blend of abuse and reward begins to chip away at Peter's skepticism, and Marling's performance, alternately sly and sincere, keeps the audience guessing as to her motives.
Last year's similarly low-key Martha Marcy May Marlene found comparable dramatic tension in an individual resisting the influence of a cult, and both films use uncomfortably intimate close-ups and restless editing to keep viewers off-balance. Sound of My Voice introduces seemingly disparate characters, including a sickly schoolgirl, and only gradually puts the pieces together. Batmanglij masterfully builds a mood of paranoia but pulls his punch in the final moments, sending audiences out on a note conspicuously weaker than the rest of the film. Maybe that's to the good, otherwise we'd risk falling completely under its spell.