Sometimes, maybe most of the time, ambiguous endings are cop-outs. The crime isn’t in subverting audience expectations—who wants movies without surprises?—but in betraying the stories themselves. Most stories deserve definitive endings, and audiences are rightfully frustrated when they don’t get them. But sometimes the situation is reversed and an ambiguous ending is the only way not to betray the story.
“Sound of My Voice” follows Peter, a budding filmmaker who infiltrates (for lack of a less freighted term) a cult, which is built around a woman claiming to have traveled back in time from the future. Peter drags his girlfriend along as he tries to bring down the cult and its leader, Maggie, with a biting documentary, but the more enmeshed he gets with Maggie the more his skepticism wavers. By the end of the film Peter’s feelings about Maggie reach a sort of equilibrium: he genuinely does not know whether she is a fraud or not. The genius of the film is that the audience is allowed to take the same journey.
This is a film about faith, but it is not didactic. It is not an endorsement of faith or a warning against it. Rather, “Sound of My Voice” presents viewers with an environment hospitable to faith and gives them a chance to have their own faith experiences. Here’s how it works: faith grows best when a proposition—Maggie really is from the future—is both supported and undercut by a balance of evidence. If the proposition is quite unlikely to be true or merely plausible, then we’re dealing with irrational faith. If, on the other hand, the proposition is probably or most likely true, then faith isn’t really required.
So, as the story unfolds the audience is given ample evidence to support either the idea that Maggie is a time-traveler or a fraud. Indeed, a strong case can be made for each side. Yet the story doesn’t just alternate encouraging or discouraging belief in Maggie by presenting a series of isolated, conflicting clues. The real magic of the movie is how a single thing—like a silly handshake performed to gain admittance to Maggie’s presence—can, in different contexts, serve as strong evidence for and against her claims.
Sure, the film could dispense with all the uncertainty with a conclusive ending about who Maggie really is, but this would undermine the carefully crafted structure of the story. There is nothing inherently wrong with movies vindicating belief or exposing the tricks of charlatans, but a subject as broad and complex as faith deserves more. “Sound of My Voice” delivers.
A final note: none of this works at all without Brit Marling. She deftly portrays Maggie as at once petty and generous, vulnerable and vindictive, shallow and intensely deep.
Sound of My Voice
Director: Zal Batmanglij
Writers: Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling
Director of Photography: Rachel Morrison
Editor: Tamara Meem
Producers: Hans Ritter, Brit Marling and Shelley Surpin
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Running time: 1 hour 24 minutes
Starring: Christopher Denham (Peter), Nicole Vicius (Lorna) and Brit Marling (Maggie)