Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Guest Review: Sound of My Voice (2012)

A Film Review by Tennessee Jed
Last May, I reviewed Brit Marling’s first feature, a low cost, independent production titled Another Earth in which she both co-starred, and co-wrote. At the time I concluded that while flawed, it generated sufficient interest to recommend, and that Marling exhibited definite potential as both an actress and writer. Her second film shares similarities with that earlier effort, but reveals a stronger storyline. It deals with the paranormal, presents a more unified, clearly defined theme, while providing a somewhat easier concept for viewers to grasp. Marling, who partnered with different writers/directors for each film, is likely the dominant creative force behind both.

It’s the kind of story that in a more condensed format, might just have worked as an episode from The Twilight Zone. When considered in such light, how does one resist? Like any story offering a decent twist not visible from miles away, it’s best enjoyed without knowing the ending so this review’s purpose becomes twofold. Let readers know it’s worth watching, and second, generate enough interest to whet one’s appetite without spoiling the experience by revealing everything that’s coming. A spoiler alert is nonetheless warranted for anyone who might prefer to watch it cold.

** spoiler alert **

The Story begins with a young couple, Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) driving through the San Fernando Valley. Following a set of instructions, they pull into the attached garage of a house, are met and led inside, given gowns, and instructed to shower and change. They are blindfolded, flexcuffed, and driven to a second house where they are met by an older man named Klaus (Richard Wharton) and several others dressed in similar attire. Klaus and Peter share a laughably elaborate “secret hand shake,” an evidently bizarre ritual of a secret society or cult.

The leader, known only as Maggie (Brit Marling), makes an appropriately dramatic entrance with a veil over her head, while she breathes bottled oxygen from a portable unit she wheels along beside her. Maggie explains great changes are coming; civil war and societal breakdown. But, she will guide the chosen few along a path toward survival, and a better more simple life. So what’s the “kicker?” -- Maggie claims she knows all this, not because she’s a visionary, but because she has actually traveled back in time from the year 2054.

Unlike some infamous real-life cults, these potential initiates don’t live segregated from the outside world. While returning to their own home, Peter and Lorna reveal themselves not as true devotees, but want-to-be documentary film-makers intent on proving the cult is a hoax by using a micro camera embedded in Peter’s glasses. Is Maggie the real deal, a time traveling messiah? Is she merely a talented grifter, or perhaps an unstable zealot who poses danger to followers and outsiders alike? Such questions form the central thrust of the film.

Subsequent scenes tend to keep viewers guessing. An assistant takes Lorna to a pistol range to learn to shoot. Does this suggest more of a militia like agenda or merely a means to survive the coming period of civil unrest? Whether con artist or time traveler, Maggie displays enough charisma that neither Peter nor Lorna remain unaffected. Each carries their own emotional baggage. Peter, a substitute teacher at a school for young girls, is forced to confront the loss of his own mother (herself a cult member) in childhood, while Lorna, a daughter of Hollywood celebrities, suffered from substance abuse. As Peter is drawn deeper into Maggie’s orbit, Lorna exhibits signs of jealousy, potentially jeopardizing both their relationship and the project.
Maggie asks to meet one of Peter’s school students, Abigail Pritchett (Avery Pohl). He reluctantly agrees, but refuses to bring her to the house, insisting the meeting take place during a class trip to the La Brea tar pits. Meanwhile, Lorna has been contacted by a woman from the justice department who is tracking Maggie. In what is becoming a Marling trademark, the final scene ends rather suddenly, without explicitly resolving the question of Maggie’s true identity. Viewers are left to ponder that answer for themselves.

Themes - The film deals with issues of what is real, what is appearance, and how people’s lack of emotional fulfillment might cause them to willingly participate in their own manipulation. To that end, Marling has created an extraordinarily difficult role in which she must sell a character who is charismatic, mesmerizing, and reasonably believable in order to make the story work. It’s a tall order, but Marling manages to pull it off rather well.

There are other interesting threads impacting the story. As a teacher, Peter represents a kind of guide as well, and one who also would know something of manipulative behavior. There are hints the young girl Abigail is without a mother, suffering from apparent narcolepsy, and possibly a victim of abuse by her father. Peter admitted earlier, during interrogation by Maggie, to having similar childhood experiences, although he subsequently denied it to Lorna.

Weaknesses - To begin with, the entire notion of a cult is a bit creepy or off-putting to most people. There’s a scene in which members are given apples to eat and compelled to vomit them back up. In another scene, after fasting, everyone is offered earth worms to eat, apparently an allusion to a future when food becomes scarce. Cinematography and production values are rough, at times appearing amateurish. Sets clearly reflect an extremely low budget. The screenplay is dialog driven and a bit slow developing, and one can imagine some giving up after about fifteen minutes claiming it’s either too weird, too slow paced, or both.
Strengths - What makes the film ultimately worthwhile, though, is that Marling has raised some very interesting questions about a rather dark subject, and come up with a “Serling like” twist that leaves viewers alternately wondering about the apparent lack of resolution while still shaking their heads in appreciation at the cleverness of her ending. The cast unifomly does a decent job of realistically portraying their characters, particularly Marling, who continues to impress in a very challenging role.

While far from polished, Sound of My Voice can be intriguing if you get past the sluggish start. When I think of what is mainly coming out of the big studios these days (Expendables 2, Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, 3-D), I increasingly prefer these more sparse, modest films that are willing to tackle bigger ideas, and often pleasantly surprise. If you choose to see this one, I think you will be ultimately rewarded, perhaps in ways you didn’t expect. It’s a film that should, at minimum, cause you to think about it after the credits roll. I’ve come to my own conclusions, but would love to hear what others might think.


AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Thanks for an interesting review of a film I hadn't heard of. I am intrigued by the premise because this actually sounds like a very original idea. And in this day and age of cookie cutter films, I like the idea of original films a lot. I will definitely check this one out. :)

Tennessee Jed said...

That was my thought, Andrew. I don't want to "oversell" this one by pretending it is a great movie. It is an early, low budget, effort by a relative newcomer to the business. But, it is original, has an interesting premise and fun twist . . . things that are too often missing in films today. I found out about both of Brit Marling's films through reading a review (can't remember where I saw it) that I found intriguing, and hope to pass that along to Commentarama readers.

DUQ said...

Interesting review, Jed. I hadn't heard of this one. I'll watch for it.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I'm totally willing to overlook low budget as long as the story is interesting, and this one sounds interesting.

Tennessee Jed said...

DUQ - I would suggest making it a "Brit Marling" double feature. Gotta believe they are both available on Netflix or on-line somewhere. I have the Blu-Ray discs for both, but these are NOT films that benefit greatly from full 1080P HD, and I'll bet used DVD's are inexpensive. These are esoteric "independent" films that are not likely to show up on SHO or HBO anytime soon unless Marling goes big time.

It will be interesting if "Individualist" Ellen B., or Doc Whoa happen by today. They are the three that had seen Another Earth. I think Sound of My Voice is the better of the two, and would love to get the opinion of somebody who has seen it. If one takes the time to make it happen, I do believe that while you won't be "blown away" by the film, you will be pleasantly surprised. :)

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew - I don't disagree, particularly on a film such as this, because big budget set pieces is definitely not what this one is about. I do think Marling would have loved Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, and Thriller were she a generation earlier.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I'm really enjoying the smaller budget stuff today. Even when the movie isn't great (look at my review for the film 13 a couple weeks ago), I'm enjoying watching the films. They feel a little more raw, a little more real, and a lot more unpredictable.

Tennessee Jed said...

DUQ - as I think about my earlier comment to you, I think I will actually retract my suggestion about seeing them together. These are both quiet, non-action, cerebral films; you know, the kind you can doze off if you are tired and watching in a darkened room :) Taken together, they might be a bit much. Rather, try "Sound of My Voice" and if you like it, then go back and check out "Another Earth."

ellenB said...

Jed, I did see Another Earth, but I didn't see this one. It sounds interesting though and I will look for it. :)

Tennessee Jed said...

ellenB - there are several similarities in style between the two films, but "Sound of My Voice" is, I think, the stronger of the two. It's just a more believable story (if that's the right word.) If you do see it, I'd love to get your take on who you think "Maggie" is. As I mentioned, I have my own opinion, but . . . who knows? Both films are a bit different than the typical fare available today, and that's what I enjoyed. I say she was taking some nice chances, but there may not really have been that much at stake financially. :)

Marling has a role in the recent film Arbitrage with Richard Gere, and I'm anxious to see how she did in that role. It will be interesting to see if and how far her career progresses.

T-Rav said...

I don't remember if I heard of this one or not. It kinda sounds familiar, but I'm not sure.

If this movie can offer a genuine surprise, that's good enough for me. I think all of us are tired of the predictable, paint-by-numbers plot lines.

Tennessee Jed said...

agreed, T-Rav. I suppose one man's genuine surprise could be another man's "saw that coming a mile away" but I'd say this one is worth the risk.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, I find it amazing that so many people seem to be able to agree that we are sick of the paint-by-numbers plots... yet, that's all Hollywood gives. Either Hollywood is delusional, or I guess we aren't their target market anymore.

Tennessee Jed said...

probably the latter, Andrew :(

Tennessee Jed said...

I see that these two have collaborated on a new thriller called "The East"in which a woman infiltrates a group of anarchists who commit attacks on corporations. They seem to get their funding from grants based on awards at Sundance.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I think that's true. Studios make more money overseas now and their target in the US tends to be teenage girls.

Anonymous said...

Jed -

Great review (and I love that poster image).

I haven't seen this one (or Another Earth) but I'll be sure to put it on the to-watch list. Oddly, wasn't there another movie that came out last year that dealt with cults? I think it was Martha Marcy May Marlene.

Cults are something we can laugh at from a distance but I suppose they're no laughing matter up close.

As for budget, I agree with Andrew - if everything else is firing on all cylinders, then it's not a problem.

Anonymous said...

Andrew -

We've all talked about this ad nauseum but in Hollywood nowadays, "non-offensive pre-existing franchises" seem to be the order of the day.

No wonder a lot of the great filmmakers and actors are doing television!

Incidentally, I listen to Kevin Smith's Hollywood Babble-On podcast religiously every week and they do movie news. Smith's co-host usually ends up reading off a bunch of remakes that are going into production, to which Smith replies: "People wonder why I'm retiring from directing. This is why!"

Tennessee Jed said...

Thanks, Scott. Well, when one looks at Applewhite or Jim Jones, the results are tragic. Here is an interesting link to a brief review of Marling's newest, which screened at the 2013 Sundance Festival. It mentions Martha Marcy May Marlene along with Sound of My Voice when commenting on "The East."

Of course, I know my normal method of linking doesn't work, but you will be able to fix that :)

Tennessee Jed said...

Looks like I may have set a new record for non-Saturday night posts in terms of light traffic. I'll check back in a bit, but looks pretty much like "that's all folks!" ;)

Anonymous said...

Yeah, traffic's been light lately. Hopefully, with the holidays and the election over (though is the election ever over?), people will start flocking back.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Sadly, that seems to be the case these days. It's all about safe rather than good. Even most of the "independent" films are little more than generic Hollywood "product."

It's kind of depressing actually.

Individualist said...

Tennessee Jed you invoked my name and like a badly plotted movie Demon I called.

This sounds like a great film. I saw Another Earth and liked it.

This director is really good and this one sounds interesting. And you are right, these are the kind of films that Hollywoood just won't do.

Tennessee Jed said...

Thanks, Indi; I agree Hollywood doesn't seem to do this kind of movie. I liked this one even better than Another Earth, so I think you would enjoy it.

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