Brit Marling is one of the most interesting rising stars in screenwriting right now, with a string of festival-acclaimed flicks that began with 2011’s intimate sci-fi drama, Another Earth, and continued in her first collaboration with director Zal Batmanglij, last year’s Sound Of My Voice. Her latest film, working with Batmanglij again, is The East, a thriller about eco-terrorism.
Sara (played by Marling) is a former FBI agent who has been researching for an undercover job with a private security firm for the best part of a year. It entails going undercover with an anarchist organisation called The East, who have pledged to enact vengeance on the CEOs of corporations that have damaged the environment. Sara ultimately gets the job because she is seen as “unexpected”.
After chasing dead ends, Sara finds her way in. She then has to convince key figures Benji. (Alexander Skarsgård) Izzy (Ellen Page) and Doc (Toby Kebbell) that she is loyal to the cause, all while reporting back to her employers. She is warned by her handler (Patricia Clarkson) that if she should be discovered, these people would not give a second thought to killing her. However, Sara soon starts to see things in an unexpected light.
Over the course of her previous two films, Marling has shown a knack for slowly building upon a solid, central idea, before rallying with an unexpected and thought-provoking ending. The East is in similar territory to Sound Of My Voice, which followed a pair of journalists as they infiltrated a cult based around Marling’s messiah figure.
There’s an aspect of cult about The East, (presumably named as the antithesis to the capitalist west) but it’s only really conferred upon them by what Clarkson’s buttoned-up security chief tells Sara, and the audience. “If you spent day-in and day-out with a pack of white supremacists, you’d develop feelings for them too,” she tells her protégé.
Benji, Izzy and Doc (not their real names) are all seen as terrorists by the capitalists that they seek to punish with their activism. But this is a spy thriller with many shades of grey; while The East aren’t exactly sitting around doing “Give Quiche A Chance” routines about sticking it to the Man with polite but affirmative action, there are still a couple of scenes where they have qualms about hurting people.
The character who is most effectively planted between the extreme viewpoint and the compassionate side of things is Doc. Kebbell’s performance towers over all others in the film by its sheer understatement, with the repressed anger and bitterness of his character’s back story bubbling up but never spilling over. His is by far the most fleshed-out character of the bunch, and he commands the screen every time he appears.
However, while Marling may be a very interesting screenwriter, it remains that she’s not the best leading lady around. What worked for her detached and guilt-stricken ex-con in Another Earth, or for her airy-fairy future-dweller in Sound Of My Voice, works far less well for an undercover agent.
She’s at her best in each instance where Sara faces a moral or idealistic quandary, but these scenes actually serve to break up spells of disinterest, where the more powerful screen presences of Kebbell, Skarsgård or Page quite easily take over.
But if The East’s greatest strength is in its writing, then it’s in the slow-burn pace of the script. Few will sympathise with the phamaceutical company bigwigs in the film, and with the spy thriller elements dialled down, you really have time to reflect upon what you’re seeing, and feel your way through as Sara does.
In the process, you’re left on tenterhooks as to which side she will eventually choose, and therein lies the real tension. And even after almost two hours, the ending, while not as ambiguous or shocking as those of Marling’s previous two films, remains refreshingly unexpected.
The East is out in UK cinemas now.
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