Typcially, cults don’t garner media attention unless they do something really big, like when Heaven’s Gate rose to the public eye in 1997 after 39 members committed mass suicide. And while cults may welcome newcomers openly or warily, it seems they prefer to remain elusive and secretive.
In the feature-length drama Sound of My Voice, Peter Aitken, a 20-something school teacher, is angry at the cultish fanaticism that led to his mother’s death (per her cult’s teaching, she refused to take medicine when she was gravely ill) and turns a cynical eye toward belief patterns he believes distort reality.
Shaped by an experience that left him void of parental companionship, he searches for meaning alone, not knowing what to believe.
However, the one thing he believes with conviction is in the backwards nature of cults; that’s why he’s joining one in the San Fernando Valley, confident he’ll follow the dogma and practices as far as necessary to expose it for its irrational bullshit. Thus, with an agenda, hidden camera, and his girlfriend, Lorna, Peter begins his mission to infiltrate from within.
Sound of My Voice opens with Peter and Lorna driving in the dark to a house where they’re told to pull into a garage, park the car, and wait for further instructions. Soon a mysterious figure appears, leading them inside to bathe, don white clothes, and enter a van blindfolded with several fellow members, off to the place where their prophetic leader Maggie resides.
Maggie, who is played by the film’s screenwriter Brit Marling, embodies that role as a slender blonde goddess. She’s amassed followers because she claims she was born 30 years in the future, but has traveled back to prepare a few people for a future civil war. As members are captivated by her ways, and heeding of her holistic instruction, Peter and Lorna comply with earnestness, unsure of what they may encounter, but confident in fulfilling their larger purpose: to expose.
Skepticism, however, is the theme that knits Sound of My Voice together. As Peter and Lorna perform routines meant to unite the cult, they find their level of commitment is tested -- both in what they’re willing to do with the cult and in their intention to bring the group to ruin.
In one scene, Maggie presents members with homegrown apples, and like the biblical narrative, she instructs members to eat the fruit to gain knowledge and understanding. As members comply, Maggie’s disposition changes. The way to enlightenment, she tells them, is to rid oneself of the fruits of logic, and instead, to choose to believe, to trust her, to follow. Therefore, the true test of their dedication is to vomit up the apple.
As Peter refuses, Maggie coerces him; an exchange that leads him to exposes his wounds: his mother’s feeble dedication to family, his fears of being alone, his struggle to ascertain greater meaning. When he finally reaches an emotional breakdown and vomits up the apple, the group embraces him as he searches below for the camera sensor he threw up. A symbol of his two worlds held in tension. Like the camera’s upheaval as Peter confronts his fears, the narrative of seeking truth amid masked motives drives the narrative toward its tipping point.
As more secretes expose and emotions run high, Peter is forced to decide: belief or doubt? But perhaps, things are not quite so cut and dry, perhaps there is a bit of good in the bad (or bad in the good). And perhaps, as the film may suggest, reality may have multiple outcomes, unknown possibilities, more at play than we notice when we fixate our vision solely on absolutes.
While there isn’t a compelling wrap-up to the cult case, the audience it seems, is invited to evaluate themselves alongside Peter and Lorna’s journey of grappling with morality, belief and truth. We too can ask if our true desires align with something greater, or rather, are purely inane. It’s your choice to believe, were left to think, and maybe that’s enough to ponder.
Joshua Witchger is a web assistant at Sojourners.