In Zal Batmanglij's psychological thriller, a Los Angeles man and his girlfriend join a cult in order to expose its leader, an ethereal beauty named Maggie who claims to be from the year 2054. But the pair — Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius), who attempt to secretly film the cult's rituals — have trouble remaining objective. Maggie (Brit Marling) gets under their skin — even literally in one scene where she makes the cult members vomit. Peter seems to get sucked in — or is it, as he explains to the more cynical Lorna, a documentarian's strategy employed to win Maggie's confidence?
Who's zooming who is a fair question here, though Batmanglij's small-scale indie film (co-written with Marling) is more about the journey than the destination. The film is slowly paced, with unexplained characters doing unexplained weird things. It often feels more about setting a mood or posing open-ended questions than about delivering a plot. (It's apparently part of a trilogy, so more precise explanations may be forthcoming.) Yet the film is always intriguing, right up to the end, where viewers might either remain pleasantly intrigued — or groan in frustration.
It's easy to dismiss the small cult that meets in a bland suburban basement, but the undercurrents it reveals are real: the desire to belong and to be part of something special; the danger inherent in trust; or the stories we tell and accept to make sense of a confusing world. In that respect, the film also acts as a meta commentary, letting us decide how much of its proffered story we want to accept. (Remember, Peter believes film to be the indisputable medium to tell the truth.) But as Maggie counsels the new recruits, a seemingly improbably story may be best understood using the heart, not the head.