A couple of Sundances ago, the actress/writer/producer Brit Marling was a festival darling, with two acclaimed pictures unveiled the same week. In the end, while both Another Earth and Sound of My Voice received distribution, neither found much of a mainstream audience. (Marling’s also established an acting career that included a very good turn in last year’s Arbitrage.) She’s reteamed with Zal Batmanglij, her co-writer/director on Sound, for THE EAST, a somewhat slicker reexamination of some of their earlier themes.
As In Sound of My Voice, The East concerns infiltration into a small, secret, tightly-protected group. Instead of a religious cult, this time it’s an environmental activist cadre that stages “jams” against polluters and other evil corporate entities–and not just symbolic protests, but serious criminal actions that inflict very carefully-designed harm on the corporations and their leaders. Marling, rather than playing the head of the group as she was in Sound, is here the infiltrator, a former FBI agent named Sarah who works for a high-level security firm (run by the icy Sharon, played by Patricia Clarkson) whose corporate clients want The East stopped.
The members of The East, who include leader Benji (Alexander Skarsgard), Izzy (Ellen Page) and Doc (Toby Kebbell), are rightfully paranoid, and Sarah has to prove herself multiple times before she can even begin to earn their trust. Once she’s thoroughly enmeshed with them, the inevitable question becomes whether her sympathies will begin to sway to their side despite the serious consequences of their actions, or if she’ll remain a good corporate spy.
The East sets things up extremely well, with a thoroughly engrossing account of Sarah’s first encounters with The East and the interrelationships among its members. Marling and Batmanglij’s script, though, reaches a point where it becomes too concerned with knocking audiences off their feet with constant double, triple and quadruple-crosses, until by the end of the movie, there have been so many increasingly formalistic twists that the life has been sucked out of the tale. Perhaps this conveys a profound cynicism that the filmmakers intended, but it’s not very satisfying for viewers.
Nevertheless, The East is absorbing and exciting for most of its length, with a aesthetic (the photography is by Roman Vasyanov) that believably shifts from the grungy life of The East to the well-heeled environs of their victims and Sarah’s employer. The cast is very fine, with the shifting dynamics between Skarsgard and Marling particularly notable.
Presumably as part of the Sound of My Voice distribution deal, The East was put together by Fox Searchlight as well, and is scheduled to be released in theaters later this year. It adds enough to the bare-bones production values of the Marling team’s earlier films that it should be able to be marketed as more of a straightforward thriller, although it’s still likely to hold appeal mostly for an art-house audience.