'The East': Marling, Batmanglij's Bold, Provocative Eco-Thriller

Directed by: Zal Batmanglij; Runtime:116 minutes
Grade: B+

In Sound of My Voice and Another Earth, writer/actress Brit Marling and her creative teams focused on fairly abstract emotional topics and themes, from how a cult community manipulates new recruits to how mourning the death of a loved one interacts with the existence of an "alternate reality". Both are smart, boundary-testing challenges that operating in philosophical gray areas, but the topics are somewhat limited in their appeal to a larger audience, lacking a universally embraceable premise. The East, Marling's second collaboration with director and co-writer Zal Batmanglij, focuses their talents on a more widely-relatable and well-timed subject: the corrupt practices of corporations that are destroying the earth and its population, and the extremists fighting against them. A clash of company ethics and revolutionary retaliation rests at the heart of this smart and exhilarating thriller, yet the messages it conveys are secondary to how someone on the outside, someone compelled simply by the counterculture and the root of the problem, perceives them both.

That person is Jane "Sarah" (Marling), a former FBI agent now working with a private intelligence firm who's been tasked with infiltrating a group known as The East, an anarchist collective responsible for several "eye for an eye" attacks on large corporations, to prevent others from being targeted. After a telling interview with her new handler (an atypically menacing Patricia Clarkson) that reveals the similarities in their personalities and the unpredictability of her new assignment, she works her way across the country through a network of off-the-grid scroungers and nomads until she finds herself in their midst. Crammed in a dilapidated house free of most technology where they sustain themselves on cast-out goods and team-building activities, led by their mastermind, Benji (Alexander Skarsgard), Sarah proves herself worthy enough to be included in one of the collective's "jams", which have grown incrementally aggressive with time. The deeper Sarah looks into their targets and the more she acclimates to their lifestyle, however, the more their rationale makes sense to her. Thus, the balance of morality is far from one-sided; nobody's a mustache-twirling villain or a noble hero here.

The East marks Marling and Batmanglij's first opportunity to flex their muscle with a more considerable budget (~$6m), which can be seen in the scope and detail of the sensations built around the collective's operation. Through the eye of End of Watch cinematographer Roman Vasyanov, they've taken strides to make the dilapidated hideout an organic, believable hub for their planning and togetherness, where little details such as an echoing piano offer hints to the life that once existed inside its now weatherworn walls. Shades of the cultish oddness from Sound of My Voice emerge in their candlelit and outdoor activities, such as a peculiar dining sequence that challenges Sarah's nature and another involving the significance of a "thrill-kill" deer in the wilderness, but the writers know what they're doing by applying restraint and appeal to their activities, offering a blurry viewpoint on the extremists that gradually comes into focus -- and out of focus -- through Sarah's experiences. From how she originally penetrates their hideout to how she and her organization have planned several steps ahead to thwart being compromised, there's a clever, reactive foundation here for a purpose-driven thriller.

A tricky line separates respect for The East's way of living and validating their hostile actions, one that Marling and Batmanglij skillfully tiptoe with Sarah's stints inside the group. Obviously, she couldn't successfully infiltrate them without following through with a few of their orchestrated "jams", which become the root of the film's meaningful suspense as its members seek equal retribution for corporate transgressions. While some tension brews over whether the anarchists will execute their plans against pharmaceutical companies and energy behemoths -- they're small-scale ploys with big impacts, well within the film's achievable scope -- much of the intensity roots in how Sarah participates with what they're doing, from her level of safety and knowledge to her lack of conviction towards The East's spinning moral compass. Mostly, the script cleverly avoids appearing too heavy-handed around the group's rationalization for their actions, incorporating its well-drawn characters by attacking specific organizations as recompense for their loyalty; each member has a story, which becomes the backbone to the jams Sarah experiences.

To its benefit, The East concentrates on the societal problems driving the group's counterculture mentality almost as much as their revolutionary tactics, along with how Sarah's perceptions -- on corporate secrets, radicalism, and alternate solutions to problems -- adapt while living in their bare-boned existence. Brit Marling remains a mesmerizing powerhouse: she's an actress who exhibits both consistent traits and fresh, subtle personality shifts depending on the character she's embodying, and she manages complexity to spare with Sarah. Watching her figurative eyes open as she experiences what The East has to offer, both the community and the hazardous extremism, isn't the obvious flip-flop one might be expecting. Instead, she establishes her own understanding based on raw facts and the people with whom she's interacted, namely the brooding conviction that Alexander Skarsgard distills in Benji and the skeptical bitterness from Ellen Page's Izzy. Performances are crucial when conveying personal stories of resistance that blur the line between objective retaliation and personal vendetta, and the cast here thrives on their characters conveying mutual empathy through false identities.

At its core, though, The East thrives on its own merits as a nailbiter of a morally gray spy/espionage thriller, where the danger of revealing Sarah's identity and curiosity over where her allegiance will ultimately lie are what send the film towards an emotional livewire of a conclusion. A simple scene near the end catalyzes our perception of the ideological and emotional turmoil going through her mind, a teary breakdown during her everyday routine backed by a poignantly selected track of popular music, which lingers in the mind as decisions are made and gears put in motion for The East's final "jam" -- and the last opportunity to capitalize on her infiltration emerges. While restrained and somewhat questionable, it's an engaging climax that allows for Sarah's evolution to claim the spotlight during an intense escalation, and unlike the conclusion to Marling and Batmanglij's previous film, it paints a graspable, convincing portrait of what the main character perceives to be her philosophical true north.

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