Brit Marling has to be one of the strangest young “artists” to emerge from the indie movie scene in the last few years. She has a classic natural beauty, a deep whisper of a voice and an intriguing upside down smile that make her very watchable on-screen. She’s also a writer and ideas creator behind the scenes, cooking up thought-provoking roles for herself and her fellow actors Yet after seeing her in four interesting films (After Earth, Arbitrage, Sound of My Voice and now The East), I’m not entirely convinced of her acting ability. She has a vacant stare (which works to her advantage depending on the role), an aloof physical presence, and while she knows how to cry predictably emo-style in emotional breakdown scenes, she rarely shows any other emotion. It’s like she’s wading slowly through water up to her eyes on-screen.
Well, Marling has re-teamed with co-writer and director Zal Batmanglij for the eco-terrorism indie thriller The East. Whereas in their previous endeavor – the quasi-entrancing Sound of My Voice – Marling played a soft-spoken cult leader claiming to be a time traveler, here in The East she is the corporate operative assigned to infiltrate a clandestine vigilante terrorist co-op which targets corporate polluters and big pharmacy. The group is lead by the soothingly charismatic Alexander Skarsgard, who we eventually learn is a former trust-fund boy turned terrorist. Also on board for the well-rounded cast are Patricia Clarkson (excellent as always but underused) as Marling’s cold client-focused boss and Ellen Page (convincingly dedicated to the cause) as a key player in the terrorist group.
Batmanglij directs in a non-obtrusive by-the-numbers low-rent indie style while Marling acquits herself nicely in the lead. Heck, you can’t fault the girl for writing roles for herself that perfectly match her somewhat stilted acting style as her “spy” is conveniently not supposed to show her emotions. The score is nicely done by Harry Gregson-Williams and features an effectively utilized recurring theme from the ubiquitous Arvo Part.
The first hour and a half of The East is engaging fare detailing the infiltration, the inevitable attachment Marling’s character develops to her marks, and the noble motives behind the destructive and dangerous activities of the group. The derring-do’s of The East are playfully called “jams” – and the moral ambiguity and timely expose of corporate malfeasance was just the kind of jam I like when it comes to thinking-man’s thrillers. Sadly, things come to a screeching halt in the final ten minutes where credulity becomes strained and the main characters start acting stupidly. The script ultimately sacrifices realism and suspense for didacticism. A lazy, voiceless headline-style montage plays over the end credits (a stark contrast to the daring pirated video of a “jam” that successfully opens the film) where things are tied nicely into a bow and the world is suddenly a better place. What a let-down. I guess I prefer my jams bitter.
Written by David H. Schleicher