Film of the week

Sound of My Voice (15)

3.00

Starring: Brit Marling, Christopher Denham

The search for meaning can take people to the oddest places. In Zal Batmanglij's debut feature, a psychodrama with a sci-fi reverb, two people seek the truth inside a nondescript basement somewhere in suburban California.

Peter (Christopher Denham) and his girlfriend Lorna (Nicole Vicius) are among the latest recruits to be inducted into a cult. T3hey are driven blindfolded to a mystery location, told to strip and shower, dressed in white hospital gowns, then led down to a basement where they exchange an elaborate handshake ritual that's so close to a Three Stooges routine you'd laugh out loud. Except that nobody here does. Enter a serene, floaty young woman in white, trailing an oxygen tank. This is Maggie (Brit Marling), leader of the cult, who claims to have come from the future – 2054, to be precise – and speaks in a soothing, tell-me-your-troubles voice, though the news she brings is not good: civil war lies ahead, and they must save themselves from oblivion.

Maggie's followers, seated cross-legged on the floor, absorb this message with expressions of great solemnity. So do Peter and Lorna, until they get back home and play a recording of their strange encounter. These two, you see, are undercover film-makers who have posed as neophytes so as to gather material for a documentary expose. They both agree that Maggie is "dangerous", though Peter is the more sceptical and scornful investigator; he's determined to show up Maggie as a charlatan, and he takes the risk of smuggling in the technology to do it. The divergence in the couple's perception of their inscrutable subject becomes a dramatic pivot of the movie, the second this year, after Martha Marcy May Marlene, to focus upon the inner workings of a cult.

The most salient difference between Sound of My Voice and Martha Marcy... is in the charismatic leader being a woman rather than a man. In the latter, John Hawkes was a soft-spoken predator who ruled his mostly female flock through sex and intimidation. Brit Marling, who also co-wrote the script with Batmanglij, is a more touchy-feely presence as Maggie, a doe-eyed high-priestess who asks questions like, "How do we rise to our callings as chosen ones?" Er... She has her own powers of manipulation, though, exhibited in the "purging" rituals she conducts on her disciples: on her command, each vomits up an apple they've just eaten. All but Peter, who says he can't, at which Maggie turns mystic, stripping down his psychological defences and divining an abused childhood he's never admitted to Lorna, or even perhaps to himself. (He duly barfs). He later claims this confession to be made up, a way of winning Maggie's trust, but by now the leader/disciple relationship is so convoluted we can't tell if he's lying or not.

The film is deadly serious in its way, yet it keeps picking up weird comic vibrations from the creepiness. The conspiratorial handshake – a superMasonic, you might call it – doesn't get any less absurd, while Maggie's testing of her followers' gag reflex with "live" food starts to resemble a gameshow – "I'm a Cult Member, Get Me Out of Here". This time I did laugh, when one of the more squeamish takes a look at what Maggie wants them to eat and says, "I'm vegan." The best scene, though, is one that answers to our own curiosity about Maggie's outlandish claim of time-travel. During a group Q&A about the future, one disciple asks her whether there's music in 2054. When it's established that there is, another man asks her to sing something that's popular "there", a request that's perfectly genuine but also pitched to test her credibility. After some cajoling, Maggie agrees to sing, and warbles out a quite ordinary little love song. Well, sounds OK, you think – until the man, with a puzzled look, announces that the song, actually, is by Irish pop group The Cranberries, and was a hit in the 1990s. How does she get out of that one?

Doubts begin to breed within the hothouse atmosphere. Is Maggie a fraud, a nutter, a narcissist, a fugitive from the FBI? Or is she – dramatic pause – something altogether different? Peter and Lorna are baffled, as we are, and their partnership starts to fray under the pressure. Batmanglij turns his low-budget settings to advantage, building tension with thumping chapter intertitles and unsettling incidental music (by Rostam Batmanglij). The plot takes a sinister turn when Peter is compelled to involve one of his eight-year-old pupils (he's a supply schoolteacher in "normal" life). Sound of My Voice has achieved its effects up to this point with such deft economy that you feel something memorable, and perhaps horrible, is on the way.

It doesn't work out like that. Having paced it carefully, the film-makers hurry through the denouement as if they'd been told to wind it up that minute. They have a surprise in store, but it's also a bit of a cheat. The tension the film has mined between rationality and the need to believe in something is not an easy one to resolve, but it deserves a subtler payoff than it gets here. Most films are too long. This one feels about 20 minutes too short. (Did they simply run out of money?). Praise all the same to Batmanglij on his debut, and to Marling for a performance to match her guilt-tormented astronomer in a similar alt.sci-fi psychodrama, Another Earth. I'm pretty sure she's not come from the future, but the future may be coming for her.

Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Arts and Entertainment
All-new couples 'Come Dine With Me'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne
musicReview: BST Hyde Park, London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart star in Almost Royal burning bright productions
tvTV comedy following British ‘aristos’ is accused of mocking the trusting nature of Americans
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice