Since 2011's Another Earth landed at Sundance and nabbed the Special Jury Prize, Brit Marling has quickly cemented herself as one of the most exciting and challenging new talents. When she feels a genre hasn't been explored to its full potential, she takes it further. When she notices women her age are typecast in boring roles, she writes her own. She's a visionary filmmaker with something to say and the talent and ambition to make sure she's heard - her second collaboration with director and co- writer Zal Batmanglij, The East, is no exception, and is perhaps the peak of her already illustrious career so far.
The film follows Jane Owen (Marling), an undercover security agent, as she leaves behind her doting boyfriend (Jason Ritter) to infiltrate an eco-terrorist group known as The East, who have publicly targeted massive corporations for their covered-up crimes against humans and nature. In between reports to her icy, amoral boss (Patricia Clarkson), Jane slowly grows fascinated with the group, its morals and goals, and its core (Alexander Skarsgard, Ellen Page, Shiloh Fernandez, Toby Kebbell), observing with a mix of horror and infatuation as they execute their violent "jams" on the corporations' key members.
The East will inevitably draw comparisons to Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene because of the subject matter and its ingenue leading lady.The East is not as much of a psychological profile, but there are interesting similarities - like Durkin, Batmanglij and Marling never really villainize or condemn their subects; instead, they make a point of showing the East's appeal. We, the audience, begin to understand why these troubled young people would find solace and purpose in what is essentially a band of guerrilla terrorists, and, in turn, why Jane is so hypnotized by them. It makes for an uncomfortably provocative watch: as we learn more about the characters, their backgrounds, and the corporations' crimes (which are based in fact), it's hard to determine who the "bad guys" are. I saw the film at a festival where Batmanglij gave a short Q&A after and he revealed that he, Marling, and Page had lived with similar groups (without the terrorism) before and were sympathetic with the East's cause, if not their methods. The sympathy shows in the writing and most of the time that's a good thing, but there are times when it gets closer to bias and muddies otherwise brilliant storytelling - but these are blips in the overall outstanding product.
Marling is, as always, enigmatic and hypnotizing, but she is an observer and lets the other characters do the talking; it takes highly skilled actors to command empathy for villains and the cast doesn't disappoint. Alexander Skarsgard is incredibly charismatic and persuasive, and he fills in the blanks admirably whenever his development is cut short. Patricia Clarkson surprises in an unusual role for her - she hints that her character might be more evil than any of the terrorists she is hunting. Jason Ritter and Hillary Baack are affecting in their small roles, and Julia Ormond dominates her five minutes of screen time - her last scene is perhaps the most haunting in the film. Ellen Page gives a career-best performances and reminds us that she's a force to be reckoned with if only she were given the chance to show off more often. She commands the screen with intimidating animosity from the second she walks on screen and has some genuinely heartbreaking moments later on.
In spite of occasional misfires, the screenplay is exceptional especially in its efficiency: there is so much going on that there isn't much time to devote to individual characters or relationships - Marling and Ritter's suffers the most - but Marling and Batmanglij make every second count as each line is weighted with enough subtext to tell us the stories implicitly and thoroughly nevertheless. The major characters are very well-drawn; even though we only get glimpses into Skarsgard, Page and Kebbell's pasts, we feel we know them inside and out. The film moves along at a fluid, adrenaline-pumping pace and the tension is genuine and organic rather than forced - the audience's investment in the story grows from affection for the characters and connection with their ideals rather than cheap editing tricks, manipulative music and stylized lighting or sound. Music is used so sparsely that when The National's "About Today" plays over a silent montage of Marling's character breaking down, its emotional weight surprises and stuns. The ending is comparatively underwhelming, but the overall package is one of the best, most provocative thrillers in years and firmly establishes Batmanglij and Marling as a sensational and important pairing.