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'Sound of My Voice' review: I don't hear anything

Matt Pais, @mattpais

RedEye movie critic

May 10, 2012

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** (out of four)

When Peter (Christopher Denham) and his girlfriend Lorna (Nicole Vicius) walk blindfolded into a basement after giving up their valuables and being driven around in a van to mask their location, the couple appears to be entering a nightmare of “Human Centipede” proportions. That’s virtually the highest-proportion nightmare you can have.

Actually, these two aspiring documentary filmmakers have gone undercover to infiltrate a very low-budget cult in which the leader, Maggie (Winnetka native Brit Marling of “Another Earth”), claims to have returned from the year 2054. She admits she realized she time-traveled a while after she woke up naked and face-down in a motel bathtub, remembering nothing but her name.

Regardless, Maggie amasses a handful of people in this basement, where a not-at-all-legit-looking guy named Klaus (Richard Wharton) apparently serves as chief executive officer of absurd secret handshakes. Featuring an original score by Rostam Batmanglij of Vampire Weekend (brother of director Zal Batmanglij, who wrote the script with Marling), “Sound of My Voice” recalls the eerie menace of “Martha Marcy May Marlene” without any of the latter film’s unsettling charisma or understanding of lost souls.

Maggie tells the folks in the basement, “Let go of you; become the group,” but “Voice” fails to illuminate what makes these people feel both broken down and rewarded enough to stick around. It’s not Maggie, who lacks the eccentric leadership of Patrick (John Hawkes) in “Martha,” despite Maggie’s alleged time-traveling abilities.

Wisely, the film allows skepticism to appear when Maggie’s anecdotes grow particularly unconvincing. Yet Batmanglij and Marling should have resisted an attempt to close with open-ended mystery, tying in a subplot about an 8-year-old girl (Avery Kristen Pohl) at the school where Peter teaches.

Not only is there a relatively simple explanation to an intended mind-blower, but it doesn’t pose the same fascinating hypothetical as the conclusion of “Another Earth.” That ending, despite the film’s contrivances, will twist your brain. “Sound of My Voice” is merely an idea getting warmed up.

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mpais@tribune.com. @mattpais