Friday, May 11, 2012

Sound of My Voice: Needs to be silenced

Sound of My Voice (2011) • View trailer
Two stars. Rating: R, for profanity, sexual candor, fleeting nudity and brief drug use 
By Derrick Bang

Brit Marling made a bit of noise on the indie scene last year, as the star and co-writer of Another Earth, a mildly intriguing blend of science fiction and psychological drama that held my attention to its provocative final scene.

When Peter (Christopher Denham) balks at regurgitating the apple he has just
eaten — with good reason; he earlier swallowed a transmitter, to conceal it —
Maggie (Brit Marling) challenges his failure to cooperate with the rest of her
group. Maggie's disapproval begins gently but quickly turns nasty and oddly
personal: merely one of many idiotic segments of psycho-babble twaddle in
this dull and dreary film.
Yes, it was paced languidly — to put it kindly — and Marling’s view of human behavior stretched credibility more than once, but Another Earth definitely packed about an hour’s worth of good storytelling into its 92 minutes: a better average than many films deliver these days.

Her new film, Sound of My Voice — which she co-wrote with its director, Zal Batmanglij — has only about 15 minutes of good storytelling in its 85 minutes. At best, it might have made a medium-decent half-hour episode of Rod Serling’s original Twilight Zone.

She’s trending in the wrong direction.

Sound of My Voice is insufferably elliptical: an unfocused story that raises far more questions than it even attempts to address, and which spends most of its time — interminable amounts of time — with a dozen folks enduring the sort of laughable encounter group grope that gives a bad name to therapy sessions.

Not that these sessions are intended to be therapy; it’s closer to the cultish behavior of impressionable acolytes who’ve flocked to a messianic leader. That’s what draws the attention of Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius), a couple who turn amateur investigators in order to make a documentary film intended to expose the behavior of an enigmatic young woman named Maggie (Marling).

The story, which unfolds slightly out of sequence, begins as Peter and Lorna submit to removing their regular clothes, taking thorough showers, dressing in hospital gowns and then enduring blindfolds and plastic cuffs on their hands, while being driven God knows where, in order to meet Maggie.

This raises an eyebrow at least a little. I understand that journalists will tolerate much for the sake of a story, but this seems a high threshold of trust for amateur journalists. And that’s actually one of this story’s many problems: We later learn that Peter is a substitute teacher, while Lorna is a former hard-living party girl, now sober, who tries to write novels. They’re “documentarians” only because this script tells us they are; we see absolutely no evidence of former journalistic endeavors.

Which also begs the first big question: Given the secrecy surrounding Maggie and her followers, and the care they take to remain below the radar, how did Peter and Lorna find out about her in the first place?

Uh-huh. It’s that kind of sloppy script.

Maggie claims to have returned to the past — our present — from the year 2054; her fragile body, unable to cope with the “poisons” of our era, needs the constant attention of oxygen tanks and a blood recycler. She cannot eat processed food, and is limited to the fruit grown elsewhere in this large house with its basement “meeting room.”

She has gathered this group of carefully vetted people — men, women, young, old — with the intention of “preparing” them for an impending event that will prove catastrophic to modern society. She skirts details, deflects direct questions and speaks only vaguely about why this future will be so grim.

Pressed, at one point, to croon a popular song from her era, Maggie shyly stumbles her way through a touching ballad, gathering courage and strength as she continues (one of Marling’s better scenes, actually). Alas, somebody in the room gently points out that she has just sung The Cranberries’ 1993 hit, “Dreams.”

Momentarily taken aback, Maggie recovers and insists that the song nonetheless became famous again in “her” era, perhaps covered by somebody else.

Peter and Lorna, returning to normal life in their apartment after each of these sessions, regard this as one more piece of mounting evidence proving that Maggie is a fraud.

We endure a seemingly endless series of these basement encounters, as Maggie employs a blend of cruelty, empathy and personal charisma to break down the defenses — and reveal the core truths — of her disciples. Peter and Lorna really are hiding something, of course, which adds some tension to these sessions.

At least, I’m sure “tension” was Marling and Batmanglij’s intention. In truth, Maggie’s behavior is ludicrously unbelievable and wholly out of touch with basic human psychology and group dynamics. These “molding” gatherings become tedious and stupid, giving us plenty of time to ponder the bigger issue: How, precisely, is this psycho-babble nonsense “preparing” Maggie’s followers for what is to come? What are they supposed to do with this “new awareness”?

Batmanglij occasionally interrupts this primary storyline to observe the extremely odd behavior of 8-year-old Abigail (Avery Kristen Pohl), one of the schoolgirls Peter teaches by day. When she goes home each afternoon, Abigail obsesses over building incredibly complex creations with black, Lego-like construction blocks. Her fixation is so intense that her father must inject her with something (!) — between her toes (!!!) — just so she can sleep each night.

That, too, is a lot to swallow in this narrative.

Other sidebar issues erupt, the strangest being Lorna’s indoctrination into handgun target practice, at the insistence of elder acolyte Joanne (Kandice Stroh). Nothing is made of this — Peter never gets this “training,” for starters — so we’re left to wonder if Maggie feels that folks in 2054 need to arm themselves. She certainly never says as much.

Despite the hostility that initially propels Peter’s determination to expose Maggie — relating vaguely to abandonment issues in his childhood — he gradually begins to fall under her spell. (Or, once again, so the script claims. Denham isn’t enough of an actor to sell this transformation.) The observant Lorna, her concern mounting, becomes genuinely worried when Maggie tells Peter that she wants to meet young Abigail.

Kidnapping? Lorna quite reasonably points out that she and Peter clearly are in over their heads.

So are we viewers. By this point, contrivance has piled atop tin-eared abnormality to a degree that demolishes whatever delicate structure Marling and Batmanglij have tried to concoct. The whole premise collapses under the weight of all this fuzzy vagueness, leaving nothing but irritation over the time that has been wasted with this film. And I’ll bet hostility wasn’t the reaction Marling and Batmanglij were going for.

Eventually, I couldn’t care less whether Maggie was a fraud, or an actual time-traveler.

On the basis of this film and Another Earth, it also seems clear that Marling suffers from the affectation that has afflicted M. Night Shyamalan, to his detriment: the insistence on a “knock our eyes out” surprise final scene. Marling sorta-kinda pulled that off at the end of Another Earth, but the similar attempt here is both clumsy and blindingly obvious, long before the final “big reveal.”

On the other hand, who knows? Legions of viewers bought into the staged phoniness of The Blair Witch Project, so I’ve no doubt some impressionable folks — those not well-versed in the common science-fiction clichés clumsily exploited here — will be knocked out both by this storyline, and its “breathtaking” final scene.

The more discriminating, however, will quickly see that this emperor has no clothes, and that the sound of Marling’s voice should be tuned out. This flick is nothing but a yawn.

No comments:

Post a Comment