Whereas Sound of My Voice saw Brit Marling play the leader of a cult being infiltrated, The East, the sophomore collaboration between the writer-actress and writer-director Zal Batmanglij, puts Marling on the other side of the equation, casting her as Sarah, an FBI agent turned intelligence-firm operative who embeds herself in the titular eco-terrorist group to protect the corporations they attack. A companion piece to its predecessor, The East showcases the evolving interests and talents of its key creative duo (notions of faith, humanism, cultural hypocrisy, and sci-fi-tinged weirdness are back in play), but expands them and channels them into a more traditional thriller framework.
Some will see the shift as a creative compromise, while others will see Marling and Batmanglij's backing from Scott Free Productions as a step toward selling out. But this is the rare instance in which Hollywoodizers like increased funding and a more familiar script structure prove artistically beneficial for filmmakers with indie roots. With a buzzy cast and a marketing boost, The East gives its creators a broader platform for their ideas, which, here, are both retained and restrained. For Marling in particular, her films have thus far been unable to keep up with their heady conceits (she also co-wrote and starred in Mike Cahill's trippy Another Earth). In her latest, the relative cohesion is unmistakable.
While environmentalist themes are inherently present in The East, the film doesn't exist to push green agendas, nor does it seem to be cashing in on real-life, eco-terrorist parallels. The eponymous collective acts as a conduit for Marling and Batmanglij's uniquely primal leanings, and it was inspired by a summer they spent living among "freegans," who eat discarded food and never spend a dime. In the movie, such is the daily routine for East members Izzy (Ellen Page), Doc (Toby Kebbell), and their leader, Benji (Alexander Skarsgård), who's introduced with the same formidable mystery as Marling's Maggie in Sound of My Voice.
Easing her way into the group's wooded sanctum (after changing her hair, leaving her life in D.C., and hunting them down for weeks disguised as a vagabond backpacker), Sarah plays the audience proxy as she witnesses the anarchists' ways, which mainly seem odd and pretentious because society deems them so. Once again, the filmmakers present offbeat gastronomic rituals (East members wear straitjackets at dinner and serve each other with wooden spoons), hand-signal communication (one member is near-deaf and chats with Sarah via sign language), and circle-time activities (a spin-the-bottle game has members asking for kisses and one-minute hugs). The scenes are clearly meant to provoke squirm-in-your-seat awkwardness, but they seem more about the overall stripping-down of oppressive social norms, the rejection of which make Marling and Batmanglij anarchists in their own right—unusual, media-making rebels of their generation.
Also starring Patricia Clarkson as Sarah's dragon-lady boss (the actress morphs effortlessly from mother figure to enemy and back again), The East, of course, sees Sarah's shifting loyalty become its central conflict. As her pseudo-Stockholm syndrome sets in (not to mention a foreseeable romance with Benji), the operative is soon weighing her evils, and her struggle is reflected with symbols both blatant and intriguing. The filmmakers could have surely found a different way—any way—of complicating Sarah's choices than making her a practicing Christian, and the dual scenes that see her forced to perform surgery, first on a killed deer and then on a wounded East member, are too on the nose, even if they effectively support the we-are-all-animals theme at work.
Serving better as visual motif are the running, roadside horses she repeatedly sees as she drives her gas-powered car, and better still are the ways the collective's corporate attacks, or "jams," mirror Sarah's character arc. The first, in which Benji and company crash a big-pharma soiree and poison guests with their own dangerous drug, runs parallel with Sarah taking The East's worldview into her system. The second, which involves revenge against a company pumping poison into water supplies, aligns with Sarah's submissive baptism (the literal inclusion of which is forgivable given the potency of the stakes). And the third, which shouldn't be spoiled, provides a climax that leaves Sarah at a definitive crossroads. It's terrific that Marling, a very fine actress, is the one playing this out in front of the camera, as it calls to mind her creative arc as well. The East isn't perfect, but for its comely star force, whose maturation continues to thrill, it marks a major step forward.