Perhaps Brit Marling is a visitor from another planet sent to Earth to remind us of just how much fun a smart movie can be.
So far this blond girl-next-door type has co-written and starred in “Another Earth” — a sci-fi relationship movie — and “The Sound of My Voice” — about a cult leader who claims to come from the future. She played Richard Gere’s daughter in the fine Wall Street meltdown drama “Arbitrage.”
Now Marling and her usual collaborator, director Zal Batmanglij, give us the topical thriller “The East.” As you’d expect from these two, it’s a very thoughtful but emotionally gripping yarn — this time about eco-terrorism.
Sarah (Marling) is a former FBI agent now in the employ of a huge security firm representing big-time corporate clients. Recently American mega-corporations have been under attack by a shadowy group of eco-warriors known as The East. Sarah’s boss (Patricia Clarkson) sends her undercover to locate and infiltrate the organization.
The assignment requires Sarah to do more than merely change her hair color and wardrobe and say farewell to her boyfriend (Jason Ritter), who thinks she has a job abroad. She has to put herself in the shoes of a disaffected and outraged tree hugger. And along the way she begins to experience the sense of persecution and futility of that mindset.
Eventually she does find herself admitted as a provisional member of The East. The group’s leader — to the extent that it has one — is Benji (“True Blood’s” Alexander Skarrsgard), a trust-fund kid using his fortune to wage a war on behalf of Mother Earth. Other members include the suspicious Izzy (Ellen Page), the scholarly Doc (Toby Kebbell), and the gender-bending Luca (Shiloh Fernandez).
Sarah gets to see The East in action when members hire on as the catering staff at a big corporate soiree and spike the drinks with the same chromosome-bending chemicals with which the company has been polluting the environment.
Marling and Batmanglij’s screenplay is extremely clever, walking a fine line between the emotional and the rational. Clearly they are no big fans of corporate rape of the environment; at the same time they're not starry-eyed idealists advocating criminal action.
The members of The East are painted as radical, certainly, but they are also very human and even childlike, carrying the scars of life in a world for which they seem ill prepared. Moreover, the group is a sort of sexless commune of mutual respect and understanding, an environment that fulfills their need for family and individual purpose.
Sarah can’t help but grow fond of her new “comrades.” And she wonders about the morality of her employer. Clarkson’s Machiavellian boss instructs Sarah to sabotage The East’s actions against the security firm’s clients. But it’s okay to let attacks on non-clients go on unimpeded. Hey, that can only be good for the security business.
It goes without saying that at some point our heroine will have to decide on which side her loyalties lie. But it is to the credit of Marling and Batmanglij that they offer no simplistic answers.
With its blend of suspense, paranoia, and conspiracy (on both sides of the question), “The East” is reminiscent of such 70s thrillers as “The Parallax View.” That’s a good thing.