Posted by: markfender | April 2, 2014

The Brit Marling Trilogy

I inadvertently ended up watching three movies starring the same person in relative short succession. Due to the vagaries of Netflix queues, I managed to watch all of Brit Marling’s movies to date in a six week period. I’m not even sure I was aware that she was in all of these movies, as they were added to my queue a really long time ago. Normally, I wouldn’t make a big deal out of this (I mean, I’m pretty sure I’ve watched a succession of Jennifer Anniston movies in the past), except that all three films have some interesting similarities. For one, Brit Marling manages to act, co-write, and produce each one. So it’s not just a bunch of “hey, that’s the same actor” but more along the lines of “Hey, that’s the same creator.” And so, my review of the thing that I am now calling The Brit Marling Trilogy.

sound-of-my-voice-oct-2I was probably looking forward to watching Sound of My Voice the most. After seeing the trailer, I thought the premise was intriguing and the style and tone was slightly unnerving. Two people infiltrate a cult in which Maggie, the cult’s leader (Marling), claims to be from the future. This movie did cults really well. The various techniques used by the cult’s leaders felt realistic, held reserved menace, and managed to push the indoctrination agenda at the same time. Brit Marling plays the cult leader as sickly, wise, desperate, and sad in equal measures. As the two infiltrators struggle with accepting or rejecting the cult’s beliefs, the film built a strong world that worked very well, demonstrating the insidious power of persuasion. Unfortunately, not everything was perfect. The film kept flashing to two other characters’ stories, a young girl and an undercover cop. All three story lines converged at the end, but their inclusion earlier in the film just kept breaking up the strong narrative created by the cult story line. But perhaps the biggest failing of the film is the question it decided to ask.

I have this problem with most stories that are dedicated to a singular question. Is Brody a terrorist on Homeland? If the answer is “no,” then I’ve wasted my time. If the answer is “yes,” then that was the expected answer and I’m just waiting until they reveal the only truth that can provide a satisfying answer. It’s when the question becomes incidental to the story that it actually becomes interesting (which one could argue that Homeland has done by expanding past that initial storyline). Sound of My Voice unfortunately asks a similar question: Is Maggie really from the future? The answer is pretty much expected, didn’t play all that well, and ultimately left me feeling unsatisfied by the entire film. Which is a damned shame, because the previous hour and a half were engrossing.

anotherearthBrit Marling starred in another indie sci-fi film the same year of Sound of My Voice, managing to co-write, produce, and star in that one as well. Another Earth is the story of Rhoda, a teenager who manages to kill a man’s wife and young son in a drunk-driving incident. After serving four years for vehicular manslaughter, she attempts to rebuild her life, seeking to apologize to the man (who spent a lot of time in a coma). She fails at this, of course, but manages to infiltrate his life, become his friend, and eventual lover. Which, of course, becomes super complicated due to their respective pasts. While all of this is going on, another earth is discovered. Accepted into MIT and planning on pursuing a career in astronomy before her accident, Rhoda has an uncommon interest in the other earth. As the tale of these two damaged people unfolds, we are treated to news stories, speculation, and other conversations about the other earth. The other earth turns out to be a mirror image of our planet, with the same people in similar life circumstances.

Mike Cahill’s directing sort of annoyed me in this film. Unlike the relatively steady camerawork of Zal Batmanglij (the director of the other two films in this trilogy), Cahill opts for handheld cameras, manual focus-pulling, and other annoyances that just serve to distract the viewer from what they’re watching. Even in the relatively beautiful shot of Rhoda on the beach with the other Earth dominating the skyline, Cahill inserts a jump/fade cut to really make sure that you’re paying attention to his direction rather than just focusing on the shot. I also found the casting a bit dubious. Brit Marling is playing a 22-year old in this film, despite being thirty years old in real life. And while she’s certainly pretty, she’s can’t exactly get away with playing twenty-two (I’d give her twenty-five). She looks older than her character is supposed to be and I didn’t buy it. Despite these relatively minor faults, I found this film more successful than Sound of My Voice. It helps that it wasn’t asking a “yes/no” question, but speculating more on “What would another earth mean?” I found the end of this movie haunting and evocative.

the eastThe final film in the unofficial Brit Marling Trilogy is The East, a non-science fiction film (I mean, unless you consider eco-terrorists actually affecting corporate policy as science-fiction). It was directed and co-written by Zal Batmanglij, who directed and co-wrote Sound of My Voice, so it returns to their favorite subject matter (apparently): cults. In this case, Marling is playing Jane, a woman working for a security company. She infiltrates The East, an eco-terrorist group. They live out in the woods like dirty hippies, play hacky sack all day, and practice free love. Okay, that’s not quite entirely true, but they do go in for weird rituals, like washing each other, playing weird love-bombing games, and odd feeding behaviors. So, of course, the primary story is about whether Jane is getting too close to the cult and being indoctrinated. It’s a pretty similar riff as Sound of My Voice and didn’t work as well for me. I also had some issues with the ‘jams’ The East was doing. For a group that does so well to stay underground that a security company needs to send an agent in order to find them and discover their plans, their plans all seemed to revolve around people that they knew. It seems to me that, after a couple of said ‘jams,’ a technically competent internet researcher would be able to piece together some of the members of the group and find them.

This movie had a bit more star power in it, with Ellen Page, Alexander Skarsgård, and Patricia Clarkson rounding out the cast. Like all of these movies, the ending was slightly ambiguous, but didn’t feel quite as fleshed out as some of the other films. While I can believe that Jane goes “too deep” (since I just watched a whole movie about it), I don’t find it as believable that every other agent had the same feelings, despite how the ending portrayed it.

So, that’s the Brit Marling trilogy. Overall, I liked the movies. It’s nice to see some independent sci-fi films that can focus on truly science-fiction concepts, instead of just a thin veneer for an action-adventure (Is it weird that science-fiction means something entirely different when made into a movie?). Yes, the ending are ambiguous to all of these films, sometimes to their detriment, but I found all three of the films moving in some small way. There’s repeated themes of cult behavior and, to put it delicately, “food issues,” so there’s some definite reoccurring subtext. All three movies avoid the common traps of independent cinema and work fairly well. They’re each interesting and worth your time.




  1. watch I Origins, if you liked these movies, Brit Marling as well

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