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Sound of My Voice: A fascinating look at life in a cult

A scene from "Sound of My Voice"

3 out of 4 stars


From Los Angeles, the city that brought us Gestalt therapy and the Manson Family, comes a sharp little cult thriller with a do-it-yourself ending.

Sound of My Voice has three principals. Peter (Christopher Denham) is an angry documentary filmmaker who lost his mother to religion. His girlfriend Lorna (Nicole Vicius), a showbiz kid, surrendered her adolescence to drugs.

To get back on top of their lives, the couple hope to expose the cult surrounding a blond prophet who claims to have returned from the year 2054 to protect California disciples from the coming apocalypse.

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The twentysomething sleuths are persistent. But their oracle-quarry, Maggie (Brit Marling), is seductive and has lots of tricks up the sleeves of her Jesus robe.

In one of the movie's best scenes, Peter swallows a microphone to sneak it by cult security and then sits in a circle with Maggie's followers.

Sensing trouble, Maggie improvises, asking everyone rid themselves of 2000 years of Christian orthodoxy. Giving followers an apple, she asks them to take a bite, eat up. And then later demands they regurgitate all they have consumed.

"Who you were before is irrelevant," she says. "Become the group."

Vomit everything! Burn down the bible's tree of knowledge, Maggie commands. Does she also know about the microphone in the filmmaker's stomach? Looking into his eyes, Maggie reads the Judas like she's following a teleprompter.

Could it be that The Woman Who Fell to Earth is exactly who she says she is?

Sound of My Voice is careful to capture the textures of New Age California. During the day, characters swim through near liquid, headachey sunshine. Maggie and disciples dress in white; their fortress hideaway is scrubbed clean of colour. The soundtrack, by pop group Vampire Weekend's Rostam Batmanglij, is a bright, beguiling synthetic wash – mood music for mysterious travellers.

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Rostam's brother, writer-director Zal Batmanglij conducts his first feature with playful authority. The film is 85 minutes long and separated into 10 chapters. We never know Maggie's endgame, how she hopes to profit from cultivating a following.

At the film's sudden conclusion, Maggie's identity is even left unsettled. We're left to decide whether she's a con artist or an oracle. Presumably, Batmanglij believes that is an unimportant distinction. He's more interested in understanding the conflicts that govern cult leaders.

Like Billy Beane, California hero of the recent baseball movie, Moneyball (and a man we see alternately eating junk food and working out), Maggie is a fascinating combination of warring impulses. Allergic to the modern world, she eats hydroponic foods and travels everywhere with an oxygen tank. And when she invites Peter into her private chamber, we see her smoking a cigarette and chugging wine.

Noting the confused look on her visitor's face, she laughs, "Hey, I said I was a prophet, I never said I was a saint."

The star of Sound of My Voice is co-screenwriter, female lead Brit Marling ( Another Earth), who plays Maggie with melancholy, amusement and scorn. Compulsively watchable, she can change who we think she is by simply turning her face. In profile, she's Vanessa Redgrave. Laughing, she becomes Debbie Reynolds. Marling might become a great character actress. Let's hope the movies use her well.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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Sound of My Voice

  • Directed by Zal Batmanglij
  • Written by Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling
  • Starring Christopher Denham, Brit Marling and Nicole Vicius
  • Classification: 14A
  • 3 stars

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