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The Unshakable Faith of Brit Marling

We’re all just incredibly lucky to bear witness to Brit Marling, the challenging creative force behind ‘Another Earth’ and ‘The OA’.
Brit Marling Arbitrage
By  · Published on July 1st, 2020

Welcome to Filmographies, a biweekly column for completists. Every edition brings a working actor’s resumé into focus as we learn about what makes them so compelling.

From day one, Brit Marling has been the type to chase the extraordinary. A powerhouse artist in every sense of the word – she has taken up the roles of actor, writer, director, and producer over many years in Hollywood – she constantly spearheads ventures that champion the most inexplicable, emotional parts of filmmaking. Across projects of varying genres, she showcases an unfailing propensity to postulate a thesis of faith.

Oftentimes daring and unapologetic, Marling implores soul-searching and personal healing from audiences of her work. She tests herself as a performer within such narratives as well. She takes responsibility for being a guardian of these stories, creating fresh artfulness out of subtlety with every character. Moreover, she has ample range and versatility to commit to ventures by other filmmakers. If only she would appear in more of them!

There is a sense of careful collation to Marling’s method. Whether she takes on a role among members of top-notch casts or occupies a dazzling leading space, nothing about her resume screams “filler” or “unnecessary.” Hence, her process going from something such as Another Earth to Arbitrage, then seemingly back around to the wondrousness of The OA is fascinating to experience.

It makes perfect sense to then track Marling’s progress from the very start. Another Earth is one of her first successes after her initial forays as director (of the documentary Boxers and Ballerinas) and actor (in the drama Political Disasters). Co-written by Marling and director Mike Cahill, the intimate sci-fi drama discusses ideas of the complex, multifaceted self through an exploration of action and consequence. Thanks to Marling and character actor William Mapother, the film puts an invariably sympathetic spin on uncontrollable events posed by cosmic forces.

Marling plays protagonist Rhoda, a life-long astronomy enthusiast whose bright future is cut short by a fatal accident of her own doing. While driving under the influence one night, Rhoda is distracted by some strange news on the radio about a potential “mirror Earth” in close enough orbit to be spotted by the naked eye. She takes her eyes off the road for a moment and consequently rams straight into a stationary vehicle at a nearby intersection. This recklessness puts Mapother’s character, John, in a coma and kills his son and pregnant wife.

As much as this mirror Earth acts as a catalyst of derailment in Rhoda’s life, it is irrevocably woven into her quest for redemption years later. She jumps at a chance to be transported to the new planet, where the prospect of a clean slate is imminent. Nevertheless, Rhoda’s journey of introspection must first begin on her homeworld, especially when she and a horribly depressed John cross paths once more, reopening old wounds.

Marling excels in the quiet moments of personal reflection in Another Earth. The actress employs persistent reserve and restraint to depict Rhoda’s deep desire to regain control over her life. Smartly, this feels like a deliberately flimsy façade. Behind Marling’s muted exterior lies all manner of anxieties, merely evidenced whenever her usually steady gaze betrays her. Rhoda debates a budding relationship with John. Paradoxically, remnants of her inquisitiveness reveal themselves the more she interacts with him. Opposite Mapother’s mix of disgruntled indifference and potent magnetism, Marling scrambles for scraps of atonement, unafraid to confront utter desperation in the process.

In comparison, Sound of My Voice (which premiered at Sundance the same year) impresses upon viewers a considerably enigmatic version of Marling. It is one of her many collaborations with filmmaker Zal Batmanglij; their first feature after working together on the sci-fi short film The Recordist. Sound of My Voice is unapologetically challenging in its premise. Where Another Earth touches on the sensitivity of the complexity of the self, Sound of My Voice examines the fine line between skepticism and belief in oneself and others.

This is because Batmanglij and Marling aren’t set out to simply depict inevitably relatable characters. At the forefront of Sound of My Voice are schoolteacher Peter (Christopher Denham) and writer Lorna (Nicole Vicius). The couple is on a mission to make a documentary in hopes of exposing a possibly fraudulent cult led by Marling’s shadowy Maggie. When Peter and Lorna are finally inducted into Maggie’s secretive group, their intention to debunk the latter’s somewhat supernatural claims is greatly muddied by her powers of persuasion.

Because Maggie is purportedly a survivor of a civil war from the year 2054, she cannot breathe without assistance from an oxygen tank and subsists on the tears, blood, and puke of her followers. She requires unfailing mental conviction from her devotees whenever she recounts tales from the future. Notably, Maggie oozes charisma and friendliness, maintaining her supporters’ engagement and admiration. However, without tangible proof of her time-traveling ways, the question of her trustworthiness hangs in the air.

This may make Maggie particularly difficult to connect to, but Marling is captivating in the part. She effortlessly leans into the character’s quietly menacing quirks, exuding warmth amid the chill of the film’s proceedings. Marling adopts an understated aura for the outlandish Maggie, fashioning herself as an authority within her cult by keeping her speculative wisdom within the realm of plausibility. What humanizes the leader and makes her bizarreness all the more unsettling is the way Marling embodies the earnestness that insidiously props up Maggie’s unfounded theories.

Thankfully, sincerity is a skill that Marling utilizes to less deceptive ends, too. Her supporting roles in the drama films Arbitrage and The Company You Keep – starring luminaries such as Richard Gere and Robert Redford, respectively – actually have a chance to stand out precisely because of her heartfulness.

Arguably, it is Marling’s next team-up with Batmanglij in the thriller The East that definitively showcases how her presence can enhance the gravity of mainstream cinema. Sure, alongside names such as Alexander Skarsgård and Ellen Page, Marling is among a prestigious ensemble in The East. The movie is very much hers, though, as she is the audience’s primary entry point into an intense, emphatic story about the clashing ethics of capitalism and ecological activism.

In The East, we first meet Marling’s leading lady, Jane, as she prepares to go undercover and gather intelligence about the mysterious eponymous collective hellbent on wreaking havoc on unscrupulous corporations. She is, for the most part, a blank slate. While she does work for a private firm that’s deep in the pockets of said corrupt companies, Jane herself seems fairly neutral, if basically privileged enough to ignore her wastefulness in lieu of her ambition.

There are expected narrative beats in The East, which leaves audiences to relish the strong performances at its heart. Jane experiences an awakening that shatters virtually everything about her existing worldview. It is to Marling’s immense credit that this transformation leaps off the screenplay organically. She tackles The East’s questions about ecological welfare and capitalistic greed with intelligence and assurance in equal measure. Jane is one of Marling’s most amiable characters despite moments of hardheadedness and sheer ignorance. As such, her more chastening moments in the film feel far more palpable and real.

Marling’s character experiments have continued to diversify since The East. 2014 proved to be her busiest year yet, during which four of her movies premiered. Additionally, Marling is undeniably pulled from her comfort zone in her first substantial foray on the small screen across the pond. She finds herself the only American in Babylon, a Danny Boyle-created British comedy-drama that tears into different factions of the Metropolitan Police Service.

Portraying the principled but thoroughly underprepared Liz Garvey – a public relations expert headhunted into the role of Scotland Yard’s new Director of Communications – Marling grits her teeth as she goes toe-to-toe against formidable groups within her newfound professional family. She touts transparency as a brand, but bureaucratic red tape, conspiratorial co-workers, and increasing demand for accountability for incidences of police brutality put her to the test. Plus, she is the new girl in town with no friends outside the force. Her loneliness is profound.

Considering Liz’s unique dramatic position in Babylon, Marling is tasked to be the gutsiest she’s ever been onscreen. She finds a key balance between Liz’s understandable jitteriness and polished poise. She spits vulgar insults as part of the vicious culture of her workplace before seemingly – and typically silently – unraveling in private. Clearly, in embodying a character that is by no means bulletproof, Marling implores audiences to truly invest in the progression of Liz’s arc in such a biting show.

Marling is clearly best suited for such compelling lead roles. Still, she isn’t immune to regrettable underutilization, as evidenced in the Terrence Malick-produced historical drama The Better Angels. Directed by A. J. Edwards in a ruminative style that heavily invokes Malick himself, the biopic chronicles the early years of United States President Abraham Lincoln and his childhood spent in Indiana. Marling stars as Lincoln’s gently resilient birth mother Nancy, who fosters a delicate, spiritual bond with her son. Despite the role demanding a less vocal presence from the actress, Marling is perfectly contemplative and ethereal. Furthermore, regardless of the modernity of her past projects, she exudes an almost otherworldly quality that fits perfectly into this period setting.

Similar observations can be made about Daniel Barber’s The Keeping Room, a genre reimagining of the dying days of the American Civil War. The film feels like a drama, thriller, and apocalyptic horror film rolled into one as it chronicles the lives of two white women living in their abandoned family home with a Black female slave in the 1860s. The men in their lives have all gone off to battle, leaving the three to hunt and gather and otherwise fend for themselves. Eventually, several chaotic life-altering situations – including a climactic terrorizing incident with two rogue Union Army soldiers – cause the women to abandon any internal tension and conflict and wholeheartedly rely on one another.

The Keeping Room isn’t always the prettiest film in terms of its subject matter. Nonetheless, its glossy and idealistic view of the past would have lessened its narrative impact without Marling’s stunning presence. As big sister Augusta, she nails her character’s penchant for imperceptibility, playing the role of reluctant matriarch in an amazingly unpitiable way. Every action the character takes is borne out of necessity and must happen in the moment, tinging her emotional fluctuations with authentic uncertainty.

As for Lulu Wang’s directorial debut, Posthumous, it happens to be the sole whimsical romantic-comedy in Marling’s filmography (hopefully, only for now). In the film, Marling’s fiery, determined, but tragically out-of-work columnist McKenzie seeks to pen the story of her dreams when she gets wind of the strange, unsatisfying life of recently-deceased visual artist Liam Price (Jack Huston). She isn’t the only one chasing ghosts in a bid to find creative fulfillment, though. Liam actually faked his own suicide, preserving the ruse once he realizes that the public at large values his art much more in retrospect.

Marling’s signature go-getting enthusiasm is extra amped up in Posthumous. Part of that works for the movie’s comic relief, but it is also a sign of authenticity that is crucial to the core of the narrative. It is a stark, welcome contrast to the film’s sobering examination of death; one that allows its modern fairytale vibe to flourish without losing its dramatic footing. McKenzie’s inquiring mind never stops interrogating the conflicts between sensationalism and essentialism in the art world, making Marling a key element in Posthumous’ overall artful sensitivity, even in such a conventional role.

Of course, I can’t discount that Marling routinely revisits the logic-driven stories that kickstarted her career. One of these projects is I Origins. Marling’s second feature collaboration with Another Earth’s Cahill, the film posits a couple of hypotheses connecting humanity’s relational entanglements. In one camp sits Marling and co-star Michael Pitt, a pair of scientists studying the intricacies of evolution. Another faction, advocated by a free-spirited young woman portrayed by Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, believes in the spiritual. Where Pitt and Marling deal with cold hard facts, Bergès-Frisbey is vexingly – and captivatingly – inexplicable in her arguments about the serendipity of the past, present, and future.

I Origins presents radical ideas that then clash in the guise of relationship woes. Nevertheless, the movie puts its characters first, never chastising them when they crave virtually impossible answers to cosmic questions. The film portrays Marling in a remarkable if somewhat stifled light as someone who is decidedly impartial between extreme ends of the narrative spectrum. Every sentiment that Marling’s character wishes to express is swallowed up in simmering silence. It’s a surprisingly non-confrontational role for her, although I’d argue it isn’t without agency. Marling’s display of mental acuity maintains that she is anything but a forgettable supporting character.

Looking back at almost a decade of inimitable endeavors, Marling’s most recent re-team with Batmanglij (at the time of writing) ought to be considered a culmination of sorts. The Netflix Original series The OA is a mystery drama bathed in spectacular sci-fi and fantasy themes that tells a grand, sprawling tale of self-actualization.

The facts of the series are these: Marling’s Prairie Johnson has been missing for seven years. Although blind at the time of her disappearance, she shockingly resurfaces after regaining her sight and adopting a new name – the eponymous moniker of “Original Angel.” This unexplainable chain of events then ignites a fire in the sleepy neighborhood Prairie grew up in. Various maladjusted misfits in her old stomping grounds band together and find purpose in one another when they realize they’re collectively chasing a sense of freedom in self-determination.

I remember tuning in to the first episode of The OA and immediately thinking that it felt like such a worthy successor to Sound of My Voice. To note, the film and series are not necessarily officially related (despite many visual parallels and potential narrative throwbacks). Regardless, my viewing experience of the former is unquestionably instrumental in my willingness to be enchanted by the latter.

Marling is a huge part of that allure. She’s an open-hearted conduit epitomizing the show’s commitment to inclusive acceptance. Watching the faintness of her expressions and listening to the soft intonations of her narration feels familiar, calming, and comforting. Of course, while I’m speaking as a Marling mega-fan, such geniality and openness are deeply-rooted in the fabric of The OA. Prairie’s inner conviction and belief in her calling to save others are so infectious that even the character’s greatest eccentricities and most remarkable demands eventually become understandable. Combined with the talents of a truly diverse cast, it’s no wonder that The OA has garnered a cult following. It’s a damn shame that it was canceled after just two seasons.

There is no easy way to characterize a bulk of Marling’s work. Most of her characters cannot be cleanly classified as heroes or villains, nor does she write or gravitate towards scripts with easy moral values. Instead, Marling prioritizes elements of the real in her most fantastical projects. With a careful mix of cinematic technique and emotional resonance, she has mastered an astute mode of storytelling that’s strongly attuned to the grey areas of the human condition. Surely, her personable approach to filmmaking demands plenty from her viewers. That being said, Marling’s strongmindedness ensures that sticking with the ins-and-outs of her craft can only be rewarding.

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Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)