DIRECTED BY Zal Batmanglij
STARS Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgård
Alexander Skarsgard and Brit Marling in The East (Photo: Fox Searchlight)
Brit Marling is one of those acquired indie tastes, like Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha, Damsels in Distress) and Mark Duplass (Your Sister's Sister, Safety Not Guaranteed), who tends to leave viewers undecided as to their actual merits. Strolling through projects with a blank face, a couple of definable tics and a tendency to mutter most of the dialogue (there's a reason many of these thespians' movies are tagged "mumblecore"), it's understandable that some moviegoers believe they elevate the art of underplaying while others find them to be about as exciting as a whistling kettle.
Don't put me down in either column; instead, mark me as an "undecided voter," given that I've appreciated most of these actors in certain roles more than others. Still, give Marling the inside track: While I barely remember her in the slog that was Another Earth (which she co-wrote with director Mike Cahill), her low-key demeanor favorably informed her work in Arbitrage, The Company You Keep and especially Sound of My Voice, an interesting if not entirely successful drama which she co-scripted with director Zal Batmanglij. She and Batmanglij have reunited for The East, and it showcases her best acting and her best writing to date. It also happens to be the most satisfying movie in which she's appeared.
Marling stars as Sarah Moss, a former FBI agent who now works for a company that specializes in protecting multimillion-dollar corporations from their own sins. For her first assignment, the agency head (Patricia Clarkson) hands her a plum gig: Go undercover as a transient and infiltrate The East, an anarchist group that seeks to punish corrupt conglomerates for their profit-puffing actions that cause the suffering and deaths of countless innocents. Faster than you can say "Occupy Wall Street," Sarah succeeds in joining the group, which is headed by the soft-spoken Benji (Alexander Skarsgård) and whose members include the brash Izzy (Ellen Page) and the sensitive Doc (a nice turn by Toby Kebbell). Sarah's arrival coincides with a plot to strike back at a pharmaceutical giant; also on the agenda is an attack against a company that's been dumping its toxic waste into heretofore clean rivers.
Obviously, the potential for The East to be nothing more than a shrieky liberal screed is enormous, but Batmanglij and Marling sidestep it with their fair and balanced screenplay. While only Republican Congressmen and Tea Party sycophants could possibly sympathize with the heinous corporations depicted in this film, that's not to say more sober-minded folks won't occasionally find fault with the group that's targeting them. "We're not terrorists," states one of its members, yet certain actions metaphorically pollute the waters as thoroughly as any sewage. The movie delights in knocking us off-balance, with only the nail-on-the-head denouement failing to convince. The rest of the time, The East keeps its salient storyline headed in the right direction.