If Brit Marling's latest Sundance export as co-writer/star brings her down to earth, it isn’t with a thud.
Her second film with Sound... director/co-writer Zal Batmanglij shifts her to eco-political thriller turf, smoothly for the most part; flawed but topically engaged and engaging, it proves the pair can be just as interesting outside the sci-fi zone as in it.
Marling’s can-do conviction provides the anchor as Sarah, a private intel spy sent undercover among “counter-culture types” to root out a gang of anti-corporate domestic eco-terrorists given to issuing Mandarin-ian online threats. “It shouldn’t be so easy to sleep at night,” goes the scare-speak: “We are The East and this is just the beginning.”
It is for Sarah, who infiltrates an agit-hippie hold-out hovered over by the straggly but striking Benji (Alexander Skarsgård) and finds more than just her eating habits challenged.
Marling and Batmanglij don’t shy from spotlighting the capitalist practice of hoisting profit margins above ethics, but The East isn’t just an
issues pic. It starts like a murky fairy tale, with Sarah accepting transformation – “Drink this,” she’s told, Alice-style – in an off-the-grid forest setting that brings out the stylist in Batmanglij.
And it’s a killer thriller, a point rammed home when the gang conduct a lethal “jam” (targeted protest) at a big pharma party, where Batmanglij’s multi-level direction brings nail-biting tension to a slickly executed personal vendetta.
Crucially, that sense of personal investment holds firm. A spin-the-bottle sequence is cannily deployed to flesh out a large ensemble, with Marling’s double-sided delivery and Ellen Page’s brash Izzy leading the way.
The effect maxes the stakes and enriches the ideas: Marling and Batmanglij note the outsider allure, but they’re smart enough to add the counter-balancing, de-romanticising elements of risk and possible tragedy.
So it’s a shame Sarah’s arc turns clichéd for a tepid late-film stretch, where her inner conflicts wind up reduced to romantic non-intrigues and a clunky lecture she spouts to her nefarious boss.
Stick with it, though, because The East rights itself with a finale in the same smartly suggestive spirit as Another Earth and Sound Of My Voice.
Marling’s cause can expect fresh converts.
Another Brit hit, plus Batmanglij is beginning to show dash as director. The duo make a tight fist of hot topicality and high tension from an ideas-packed genre piece.