You can cut the dramatic tension in this gem with a knife. It refuses to let us know the full story, what the characters are truly thinking or what the outcome might be, and we are in its grip soon and completely.
Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij’s small scale drama about a cult involves handful of people in white, sitting in a basement in suburban LA worshipping Maggie (Marling) who says she is from the year 2054. There is a gnawing sensation of doom as two journalists (Christopher Denham and Nicole Vicius) engage with a cult they’re investigating for a documentary. Like horror films of yore, you want to shout at the screen “Don’t go inside!”
Somehow and it’s not explained how, Peter and Lorna have learned of a woman who claims to be from the future, and is gathering recruits. They join up, mini cameras at the ready, and submit to a training and ritual cleansing program.
They learn a secret cult handshake which is absolutely hilarious, and purify themselves of outside influences. They’re driven blindfolded to a secret location and taken to the basement where they are forced to shower and scrub hard.
Afterwards, they’re given white hospital gowns that peek open at the back, and so are humiliated and vulnerable, and sit in a circle to meet, or better “behold” the beautiful Maggie. She explains that she’s a time traveler from the future. Her adoring subjects are putty in her hands and she’s cleverly molding them into what she need.
It’s clear that Maggie and her partner Klaus (Richard Wharton) are charismatic, intelligent and persuasive, but it’s also perfectly clear that their acolytes are weak enough to do themselves harm and that they are being manipulated. Initially we have faith that the journos will do their job, expose them and get out. But it’s not as cut and dried as that.
The filmmakers have done a masterful job of presenting complicated emotions around the concept of “brainwashing”. Maggie and Klaus do it by the book, speaking vividly and seductively, drawing their subjects in with personal testimonials and confessions, and starving, threatening and isolating them. Their mind games cause intense physical and emotional reactions; the subjects are either oblivious or uncaring that they’re being seriously groomed.
And we never know just what Lorna and Peter are thinking, they weaken, recover and galvanize on this trippy rollercoaster, and soon their documentary plans fly out the window. But again and it’s so well done, things aren’t what they seem. In private talks at home after the Maggie sessions, Peter and Lorna show their cracks and again throw us off track.
In some ways, this small scale drama is an emotional thriller, pitting Lorna and Peter against Maggie and Klaus in a claustrophobic and eternal battleground of the soul. Kudos to co-writers Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling who also plays Maggie on another inventive and profound film, following Another Earth.
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Written by Brit Marling, Zal Batmanglij
Directed by Zal Batmanglij
Opens April 27