Arriving in local theaters this week, The East is not only as good a thriller as you’ll find right now but also the latest chapter in the incredible true story of Brit Marling. The cool, slender, sensual-lipped blonde had walked away from a job as a Goldman Sachs trader to pursue an acting career but was so unimpressed by the roles she was offered in Hollywood that she decided to write better ones for herself. Her 2011 collaboration with her college friend Zal Batmanglij was an uneven but acute and unsettling science-fiction thriller called Sound of My Voice.
That movie cast her as a charismatic religious cult leader, but here in her second film with Batmanglij, she’s on the other side of the coin. She plays a D.C.-based undercover operative for a high-end private security firm, using the fake name of Sarah Moss to infiltrate The East, a group of violent ecoterrorists who operate out of a burned-out house in the forest near Washington. A devout Christian and former FBI agent, Sarah starts to lose track of herself as she gets caught up in the group’s activities.
In many ways, this is an ordinary spy thriller, with Sarah getting in too deep and becoming emotionally attached to the guerrillas. Conscientiously, the movie gets close enough to the capitalist targets to show them as human beings who’ve made bad decisions rather than faceless wealthy villains. Batmanglij and Marling also depict the tension within The East over how much violence the group members are prepared for, which provides opportunities for an energetic supporting cast, including Ellen Page as a hard-shelled Easterner who’s both suspicious of and attracted to Sarah. Page’s character goes through an entire domestic tragedy, yet this subplot (potent in itself) doesn’t have the emotional impact that it’s supposed to in the larger story. The movie comes up with nothing earth-shattering as it delves into the ethical questions raised by the outlaws’ actions.
The one major innovation here is that the main character is a woman. That might not sound like a big thing, but that simple gender flip has ripple effects throughout this story, allowing for Sarah’s sexual attraction to The East’s magnetic leader Benji (Alexander Skarsgård) and creating a whole host of different notes in her conflicted relationship with her employer (Patricia Clarkson). It’s also a great showcase for Marling, a compelling physical presence who can look wispy or powerful as the situation requires. Recognizing this, the filmmakers create a couple of scenes where Sarah uses sign language to communicate with a deaf Easterner (Hillary Baack), and the star projects authority and fierce will without saying a word.
Meanwhile, Batmanglij (whose brother Rostam is the keyboardist for the indie rock band Vampire Weekend) directs this with even more assurance and skill than he showed in his first movie, engineering a gripping sequence in which Sarah discovers she’s taking part in a mass poisoning and secretly phones her boss for help in stopping it, only to receive a nasty shock. The ending has Sarah struggling to extricate herself from the demands of both her boss and The East, and its dexterity will make you gawp in admiration. The East may well be a springboard for bigger things for Batmanglij and Marling, but right now we can enjoy it as a smart, modestly budgeted thriller that pulls you inexorably into its orbit.
Starring Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgård, and Ellen Page. Directed by Zal Batmanglij. Written by Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling. Rated PG-13.