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A Review of Sound of My Voice

Sound of My Voice is a small and focused story about a woman who claims to be a time traveler from the future, and the cult of admirers that builds around her.  It is a psychological thriller about a skeptic who is investigating her for the sake of his career as a writer / journalist, and who may or may not be succumbing to her claims.

As a thriller, it's pretty well made.  It's tense, believable, and eerie.  The acting is excellent and the pacing is perfect.  In a vacuum, I'd recommend this movie in a heartbeat.

As an actual thing that exists in an actual world with real cults, I'm not so sure I'd want people to see it.

The problem is that the movie's tension ultimately centers on whether or not the woman in question, Maggie, actually is a time traveler.  And - spoiler alert - the movie does its best to end on a note of ambiguity.  The filmmakers want you to be left in a state of confusion so that you sympathize with the protagonist, who is left with his worldview shattered and frail.

On the one hand, this is a good lesson for young people who could potentially become skeptical adults.  It's a simple lesson of humility: anybody can be fooled in the right circumstances.

I want to back up a second, actually, and explain what skepticism is for those who don't know.  People often think it just means disbelief, and that's not accurate.  Skepticism is not naysaying.  It is not looking at a situation and calling bullshit just for the hell of it.  Instead, it means that you are willing to believe anything as long as you can verify it.  And verifying truth means that you ask lots of questions - you dig for evidence.

Somebody says, "I just invented a device that turns ordinary water into super-fuel for my car!" A skeptic doesn't say, "That's impossible."  A skeptic instead says, "Really?  How does it work?"  And when the inventor says, "I can't show you," the skeptic says, "Well, until you can explain how it works, I don't believe you."  Contrast this with a cynics or contrarians, who simply say "no" outright.

Skepticism is a healthy, vital part of all intellectual development.  And unfortunately, a lot of people get steered away from it when they're young.  Everybody eventually goes through a phase where they find their faith shaken - whether its faith in their religion, their political party, their parents, or whatever else it might be.  There are many options for the next step.  A lot of people choose to hold onto to their faith.  Some, like me, choose skepticism.  But many others will fall into simply cynicism.  They feel hurt by their wavering faith and then decide that the world must be out to get them.

This attitude can then put you into a corner where you feel like you're the only one you can trust.  Suddenly, you're now the smartest person in the world.  Everyone else is an idiot.  And if somebody says something silly, then your attitude is, "Of course they said something silly.  They're an idiot.  I'm the smart one, so I would never believe that!"

For this reason, I think the core conceit of Sound of My Voice is very important.  Young people who are on the verge of becoming a skeptic need to learn to have a healthy attitude toward the world.  You never just disbelieve something for the sake of disbelief, and if you believe that you are unable to be fooled, then you are almost certainly about to be.  The protagonist of the movie reflects this perfectly.


On the other hand, the movie doesn't end with the protagonist making this realization and becoming a proper skeptic.  Instead, it ends with him being left thinking that maybe Maggie actually was a time traveler.  And that is probably the most harmful thing a movie about skepticism can do: present the supernatural as a perfectly acceptable explanation without proper evidence.

If the movie took it a few steps further and gave us incontrovertible evidence that Maggie actually was a time traveler, then you could make the argument that it really was just a lesson about humility all along.  Or if the movie went the other direction and focused purely on how cults work, without giving any evidence to back up Maggie's claims, then it would be a chilling depiction of a real world problem.

As it stands, the movie is saying, "Yeah, you know, cults are really devastating, cruel things that split up families and break friendships.... but what if, like, they were true?  Man, that would be mind-blowing, bra!"  It's reckless.  It's a terrible lesson.  It's probably the worst possible way you could end the movie.

Think about every person out there who is in a frail state of mind right now.  Maybe they just went through a rough patch in their life, or maybe they're just impressionable by nature.  They are looking for some kind of meaning.  A movie comes along that realistically depicts a cult:  quiet, calm people who seem rational and friendly at first, but who use intimidation, emotional destruction, and torture to gradually force their beliefs upon you.  And in the end, it suggests that despite all the pain, the cult's promise of truth is valid.

What is this hypothetical audience member going to do next?  You can't argue that the movie is going to make them join a cult - that's preposterous.  But it is laying the right mental groundwork for them.  What if they saw this movie only a day before a Scientologist handed them a pamphlet?  What if the movie primed them for belief at the exact worst moment in their life?  You can't argue that the movie isn't doing harm.

This is a dangerous film.  Cults are a real thing.  They target people who are just smart enough to ponder lofty ideas, just philosophical enough to be intrigued by meditations on reality, just wealthy enough to make the cult profitable.  In other words, people who would be interested in seeing a movie like Sound of My Voice.

It's one thing to make a movie where your villain is purely fictional.  It's another thing entirely when your villain is real and is actually out there right now doing real world harm.  It's irresponsible to make a movie that lets them off the hook.

P.S. -- For those who have seen the movie and can't figure out the ending without bringing the supernatural into it, consider this.  Maggie is a con artist.  She wants to get her cult to help her kidnap the daughter of a rich man and hold her hostage.  She wants to make it easy, so she will ingratiate herself to the daughter in some way.  She learns that the daughter has a secret handshake, so she studies it carefully and teaches it to her followers. This way, she and all of her gang now seem like friends to the child, so it's easy to carry out her scheme and get a wealthy ransom.  Isn't that a much more believable premise than that she traveled back in time fifty years and demanded to see her mother as a child without any real explanation as to what her endgame was?  Occam's Razor.