From the outside, the idea of joining a cult, of giving yourself to a random stranger who claims to have an answer or a connection that will lead you to a fuller, happier life or offer some kind of salvation from this world seems absurd. And certainly, to Peter, a school teacher and amateur investigative journalist in Zal Batmanglij‘s “Sound of My Voice,” he sees it at first as a topic worthy of a documentary/exposé. Together with his girlfriend Lorna, they infiltrate a group led by Maggie, an enigmatic and utterly compelling young woman who boldly claims to be from the future, and promises her followers to keep them safe from something unsaid that’s coming down the line.
Led by Brit Marling, who also co-wrote the film, and directed with confidence and style by Batmanglij, “Sound of My Voice” is many things at once, a twisty thriller, an examination of how our fears can be preyed upon and an exploration of what happens when the shells we put around our personalities are stripped down. It’s the kind of movie that’s difficult to discuss without giving away the handful of left turns and surprises that takes the narrative in some unexpected and riveting directions (and don’t worry, we won’t be spoiling anything here). Last week, we had a chance to chat with Brit Marling about the film, its themes and why the subject of infiltration is one that continues to pop up in her work.
“Sound of My Voice” first premiered at the Sundance Film Festival way back in 2011 — almost a lifetime ago — and certainly things have changed dramatically for Marling since then. And while the idea of writing and performing the role of the cult leader Maggie was intriguing from both standpoints, it was one she admits she had difficulty getting a handle on at first. “It’s intimidating to take on a role of a cult leader because what is it about the cult leader that’s holding the cult? What does it mean to have charisma or to compel a group of people or to have a group of people be devoted to you? And to try and get to the centre of that is intimating, so it was kind of hard to find Maggie at first, even in the writing phase,” Marling said. “But I think that Zal and I were able to crack her open, when we came at the scene where she sort of breaks down Peter. I think that she has an ability to see people clearly, and she kind of gets at the heart of what makes someone tick in just a few strokes of a conversation.”
And that scene — without saying too much — marks one of a handful of dynamic shifts “Sound of My Voice” takes that makes the two protagonists that we experience the story through (played by Christopher Denham and Nicole Vicius) far more complicated and nuanced than they seemed at first glance. “I think a lot of the film is wrestling the idea of honesty and truth and are there noble truths about people, and what are people — even in a relationship like Peter and Lorna’s where they’ve been together for a while and they’re living together — what do they know about each other and what don’t they know,” Marling explained about the undercurrents of the picture. “Lorna is shocked by the things that Maggie is able to uncover in Peter in like a half hour, and she’s been with her boyfriend for three years and he’s never admitted to these things. So I think the movie is really grappling with the idea of, is something even knowable? On one level, can you know a time traveler from a con artist and then on another, do you even know who your girlfriend is? Do you even know who your boyfriend is?”
This concept, of revealing a core truth through the act of infiltration seems to be one that is at the center of Marling’s films thus far, all of which she’s co-written and starred in. In “Another Earth,” directed by Mike Cahill, her character Rhoda inserts herself under false pretenses into the life of man whose family she accidentally killed years earlier. And in the upcoming “The East,” which reunites her with Zal Batmanglij, the story centers around a contract worker who works their way into an anarchist group. “I think infiltration stories are interesting right now because we all seem to be trafficking in these codes to each other. Like what we wear, and our language and how we stand and the things we say and what we read and don’t read, it’s all a presentation of self,” Marling thoughtfully elaborated. “And I think this has become painfully obvious with the likes of Facebook and Twitter, everybody is constructing this personal performance that they’re putting out into the world. Zal and I in particular have always been intrigued by espionage — our next film ‘The East’ is literally an espionage story — and I think it’s because we have often felt like we are spies in our own lives.”
But for all this talk of truth and infiltration and knowing thyself, Marling and her collaborators are not ones to lose the goal of entertaining an audience. As she tells us, they’ve long had a desire to make popcorn or genre movies that can also have a depth to them, and subvert audience expectations. “…I think high concept stuff is interesting because it provokes your sense of wonder. And real human drama and interactions between people are interesting because they hopefully tell you something about who are or what it means to be human that didn’t know before. I think all three of us — Mike and Zal and I — are interested in those things spliced together,” she explained. “When we were in college and we would go see films, we’d see big popcorn blockbuster movies and you’re sort of aroused and excited by the spectacle. And then you’d go see a great small European drama and you’re like ‘Ooh, but this makes me feel something deeply and it’s unmoored something in me.’ And I think the three of us were always shuttling back and forth between those theatres and being like, ‘Why can’t you mix these together?’ ‘Why can’t you have these high concept ideas and really substantive dramas happening within them?’ ”
With “Sound of My Voice,” Marling and Batmanglij have definitely succeeded in marrying complex ideas into the package of a tightly wound, and crafty thriller. The film opens on April 27th. Read our review here.