Throughout Sound of My Voice, in select theaters today, the big mystery is whether this beautiful, delicate cult leader is from the future, or just a big fake. Her followers are willing to do any absurd thing she demands of them, in exchange for a few morsels of future wisdom.
But the deeper you go into her crazy cult neurosis, the more you realize it doesn't matter if she's telling the truth about being from the future. Because real or fake, she meets the same desperate need, the need that's inside all of us: to meet someone who's been through Hell and survived. Spoilers ahead...
You never meet someone who's from the future and says we're all going to be eating ice cream with flecks of gold in it, off plates made out of happy nanocrystal or whatever. You wouldn't even believe someone who claimed that anyway — because we're all neurotic about the future, and we're hyper-aware that there are some pretty big bills coming due in the next few decades. But if a time traveler shows up and says the future is messed up and horrific, we're primed to believe them.
So whenever Maggie drops hints about the world of 2054 which she came back in time from, she always makes it sound like there'll be some kind of collapse of civilization. On the one hand, none of the comforts of the early 21st century will be available any longer — but on the other hand, people who survive will come through with a greater sense of community and togetherness, and so on. Especially people who belong to Maggie's special family.
But really what makes Maggie such a magnetic cult leader isn't her ultra-vague claims of foreknowledge — it's the sense you get that she's been to the abyss, and she found a way out again. It's the same reason that every self-help guru has a dreadful story of how their lives fell apart before they learned the secrets of survival — you want to hear from someone who's already endured the things you're facing.
What I really loved about Sound of My Voice is the way it illuminated our weird relationship to the future, the allure of foreboding visions. We live in a time when dystopian futures are our new stories of going into the dark forest, and we love to scare ourselves with the collapse of civilization. Even as you slowly realize that Maggie's "cult" has no spiritual beliefs and precious few tenets other than "Maggie is a time-traveler," you get sucked in to her terrible certainty about the future more and more. And you understand why people are dependent on Maggie — she's offering them a hope for redemption and salvation, in the face of disaster.
It's to Marling's credit that she conveys both the fragility and the serenity of the person who's traumatized but also weirdly at peace, because she's already seen what's coming. And some of the most intense moments in the film involve flashbacks to how Maggie first appeared in the city, a couple years ago — naked, face down in a bathtub full of water, with no money and no identification except for her weird tattoo that marked her out as a time-traveler. In the flashbacks, she wanders the streets, clad only in a bedsheet, growing more and more bedraggled and harried, until she's rescued.
But even as Maggie offers fairly incoherent predictions, and coaches her followers in some Gurdjieff-esque stuff about letting go of your bullshit, she also crosses over into creepy territory. We see her taking blood from some of her followers, and abusing their devotion in various ways. Her tactics for cementing their crazy eagerness to please her include making them all vomit in front of her, and destabilizing them.
Into this bizarre situation walk a young couple, Peter and Lorna, who are trying to infiltrate Maggie's cult so they can make an indie documentary and expose her as a fraud. Peter has a psychotic hatred for cults because of some backstory that becomes clear over the course of the film, and Lorna's just sort of along for the ride. But it's not entirely a surprise when Peter, the supposed cult-hater, is the one who gets much more fascinated and pulled into Maggie's orbit.
The scenes between Peter and Maggie are the heart of the film, and every time the two of them share moments together, it's totally electric. The film works best, honestly, as a character study of Maggie and as a study of her relationship to the skeptic who finds himself starting to get won over despite himself.
Less successful are the scenes about Peter and Lorna's troubled relationship, which feels like something we've seen a million times before. There are just a few scenes too many featuring these two messed-up hipsters sniping at each other, and they don't have the freshness and authenticity the rest of the film packs.
Similar to Another Earth, which Marling also co-wrote and starred in, this is a small intimate film that hints at some huge questions about the nature of existence. It dares to go to some pretty bleak, insane places, but also has a gentleness and character focus that serves it well. But also, there are some moments where it does over-reach or start falling into "Sundance indie" clichés.
All in all, this is an ambitious film that succeeds in pulling off most of the things it sets out to do. And Sound of My Voice really does have something new to say about our troubled relationship to the future. And it boasts some incredibly strong performances from Marling, Christopher Denham and a few other castmembers. Often, the best science fiction uses the future or other worlds to explore what it means to be alive here and now — and by that criterion, Sound of My Voice is a roaring success.