In the course of just three small films, producer-writer-star Brit Marling has managed what few actors in Hollywood have even attempted: She has seized control of her career, crafting a series of self-actualized indies that have mainstream Hollywood sitting up and taking notice. With the philosophical sci-fi film Another Earth and the mysterious cult drama Sound of My Voice, Marling established herself as an ambitious young actress unwilling to accept the thankless roles Hollywood was handing out. With her newest—the ripped-from-CNN thriller The East—Marling realizes her full potential, delivering a feature that is edgy, original and loaded with mainstream breakout appeal.
The East is both a thriller and a think piece. In it, Marling plays a former FBI trainee who has transitioned to the private sector. She’s now working for a Washington-based security firm specializing in combating corporate espionage. One day her boss (a no-nonsense Patricia Clarkson) sends her to infiltrate a loose collective of Anonymous-like, anarchy-minded techno-hippie types who are engaged in the “jamming” of various corporations. These so-called jams have started to escalate from casual, awareness-raising pranks to full-blown revenge plots aimed at corrupt medical companies and polluting chemical firms.
Using the code name Sarah, our main character tries to get inside the heads of her quarry, riding the rails with hipster hobos and hanging out with freegan scavengers. Eventually she ends up at the secret, woodsy compound of charismatic eco-terrorist Benji (Alexander Skarsgard from “True Blood” rocking the sexy Charles Manson look).
Benji and his gang (including everyone’s favorite sullen homeless teen Ellen Page) are just about the friendliest bunch of domestic terrorists you could ever hope to encounter. There’s a lot of hugging, dancing and respecting of boundaries. But everyone here’s got a heavy chip on his or her shoulders. Take, for example, Doc (Toby Kebbell, Wrath of the Titans), a former do-gooding Peace Corps doctor who has suffered debilitating nerve damage thanks to a cheap malaria cure dumped on the people of Africa by a cavalier pharmaceutical company. He wants to get back at the money-grubbing executives who approved the drug by poisoning each and every one of them with a dose of their own medicine.
As Sarah digs deeper into Benji’s eye-for-an-eye world, she finds herself growing more and more sympathetic to his cause (and to those dreamy Nordic eyes of his). The script, by Marling and director Zal Batmanglij, is an evenhanded one, assigning guilt in equal measure to one and all. It’s a complicated narrative, philosophically speaking. But Marling and her co-conspirators don’t favor lectures on responsibility to the detriment of nail-biting thrills. The East is cool, zippy and nicely suspenseful.
Though the framework here is more traditional and the production values have improved quite a bit (thanks to a boost from super-producer Ridley Scott), The East doesn’t feel like a sellout. In the past Marling’s insular indies weren’t always able to live up to her heady script ideas. This time around everything’s working in harmony. The script occasionally telegraphs some of the film’s themes rather bluntly. (Making Sarah a fundamentalist Christian seems like a cheap way of amping up her crisis of faith.) But The East never loses track of its ultimate moral. (The endings for both Another Earth and Sound of My Voice are feeling increasingly vague in retrospect.) The cast is uniformly sharp, anchored by Marling’s quiet presence. Her un-fussy, non-showy personality sets the tone for the film. Instead of bursting through the front entrance and announcing its presence, this one sneaks quietly in the back door. Before you know it, it’s sleeping on your couch and eating your Raisin Bran.
The East isn’t flawless, but it’s one of the freshest things you’re likely to view this summer. If this is what Brit Marling has been able to accomplish with her first three films, it will be a thrill to find out what she’s got in store for her next three.
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