When she moved to L.A., after graduating from Georgetown and turning down a Goldman Sachs job to make a documentary in Cuba, Brit Marling was mostly offered roles in horror movies, and I can see why. She’s really pretty and would probably do a great job running around screaming. Instead of accepting those vapid roles, she proceeded to write screenplays containing the types of women she wanted to play instead. With two friends, directors Mike Cahill and Zal Batmanglij, she wrote three interesting, smart, gorgeous movies; Another Earth (directed by Cahill), as well as Sound of My Voice and The East (directed by Batmanglij). Watch her incredible speech about her collaborators and her take on the process of making art and being creative here. By taking matters into her own hands, she created memorable roles for herself that are filled with such nuance, mystery and depth. On a purely conceptual level I find her writing her own roles to be completely awesome, let alone the fact that the final results are so compelling.
The writer/actress combo does happen, but it doesn’t happen a lot, and it should. There is something dynamic about the fact that Marling’s movies are feminine in a way, yet not overtly so at all, and she collaborates with male directors. You get the feeling someone with edges and softness is behind the scenes of these visceral, contemporary tales, full as they are of moody, philosophical rumination, action and suspense. I’m perhaps most interested in Marling’s role as writer, and how that contributes to her riveting presence within the narratives she creates. Her desire to work hard and make strange, unique art is incredibly inspiring, not to mention her bold insistence on carving out the space for herself in the film world that she wants to have. Not only is she not the horror movie heroine, she is also not the girlfriend, and she is not even the artsy hipster girl making a charming indie film. She is a whole new category altogether. Marling and her movies are the type of discovery that you want to share with everyone and make people love as much as you do.
When I first rented Another Earth I thought it was going to be a fluffy romantic drama. I waited until my husband wasn’t home and settled in. Never have I been so surprised by the disconnect between what I expected and what I saw. Another Earth is romantic and dramatic, but not in a fluffy way. Instead it’s profound, eerie and thought-provoking. I couldn’t think of anything to compare it to and was impressed by its singularity. When I read about Brit Marling afterward I was immediately captivated by her desire to tell stories, and how immersed she gets in them, not to mention her intense loveliness. I had the nervous feeling of wanting to root for her creative success against the odds that were seemingly against her, and all the horror movies waiting for her to give up on her vision and star in them. Things to love about Another Earth include; a giant second earth dangling in the sky, a doomed love affair, a girl who is both an astrophysicist and an ex-con, as well as some metaphysical and existential concerns that are answered in dreamy, yet harsh and complicated ways.
Next came Sound of My Voice, which I’ve written about before, so I’ll keep this brief. This enigmatic tale of a time traveling cult leader is told from the point of view of two undercover journalists who are attempting to infiltrate and expose her (I love that it’s her). Along with these protagonists, we are torn between our disbelief and the magnetism of the time traveling, hooded, robed Brit Marling who sings songs by the Cranberries as proof of the year 2054. By the end of the movie I was like, “Wait! What? Was she for real?” and I knew I was hooked. I wanted to see/hear/contemplate more of whatever Brit Marling might be daydreaming about next. Which brings us to The East…
Oh, The East…It is the one I’ve seen the most recently and so most fresh in my mind. After a 2nd attempt (the 1st was thwarted by a sold out showing), I found a seat in the second row of the tiny little Opera Plaza Cinema (side note: please go see movies there so it doesn’t close like The Bridge and the Lumiere did). I don’t want to give too much away, but I think this movie encapsulates all that I love about Brit Marling. It’s a “morally complicated, punkishly polished,” movie according to the poster, which sums it up well. The East is both visually lush (best wallpaper in a burned out secret house ever!) and full of complicated menace, complete with the best spin-the-bottle scene of aaaall time (my head almost exploded), a killer performance by Patricia Clarkson, and that bad vampire boy playing an eco-terrorist. It’s simply one of the best movies I’ve seen in recent memory; proof that a movie can be smart, artsy and thrilling all at once. The most impressive part of the movie (and this is a writerly feat) is that the audience changed their mind at exactly the same time the protagonist did. We were never ahead of or behind her personal evolution, reactions and thought process, and in that way the most impeccable tension and power of reveal was achieved.
Marling’s character in The East is a woman with little physical vulnerability, yet it’s a mere side note that she can (and does) kick a few asses. It isn’t a point that is emphasized or played up for novelty. There is something profound and important about the fact that the women Marling plays in each of her films are women she has written. In The East she is a woman who happens to know sign language, someone beautiful, complicated, strong, selfish, brave and secretive, someone who prays, who knows how to pick a lock, who isn’t immune to Alexander Skarsgard, and who can pull a bullet from someone’s stomach. It’s notable how unusual this type of character seems, and it’s to Brit Marling’s credit that stories like this are being told. Shouldn’t we be telling and listening to rich and complicated stories, stories concerned with larger questions, complex people and unexpected worlds? That is what Brit Marling has done with each of her movies and why I can’t wait to see what she does next.