by Hope Madden
If we’re honest, I think we are all either secretly impressed by and quietly frightened of Anonymous, or we’re openly impressed by and quietly frightened of them. I personally haven’t done much to draw their ire – I haven’t rigged an election, abused a teen, or even misused Wikipedia for my own malicious gain. Yes, I broke into my neighbor’s house when I was 8 and stole a bunch of Barbie clothes. It’s true – they might come for me for that! But you don’t have to be a potential target to worry over unchecked power, no matter how much genuine good a group does.
That conflict is the heartbeat of Brit Marling’s new film The East.
Marling is a filmmaker to watch. She’s co-scripted three films in which she’s starred, each offering an intimate, thoughtful, refreshingly off-kilter perspective.
In this work, Marling plays Sarah, an undercover agent working for a corporate counter terrorism firm. She combats terrorists combating big business. In her first assignment, she infiltrates the anarchist collective The East, a group using an “eye for an eye” approach to retaliate against eco-destructive corporate greed.
Early on, the film feels sometimes lazily scripted, as happenstance and coincidence play too large a role in Sarah’s investigation. But the film mostly overcomes these faults. Co-writer/director Zal Batmanglij builds tension well, and – as is often the case with Marling’s work – the film is not taking you exactly where you think it is.
Marling’s finest performance has been as the guru at the center of Sound of My Voice – also co-scripted and directed by Batmanglij – but she hasn’t yet disappointed. Here she possesses a veneer of calm that makes the inner conflict that much more provocative.
It helps that she’s joined by such a strong cast. Playing Sarah’s mentor, Patricia Clarkson is exquisite, as always. Ellen Page plays against type and succeeds, and Alexander Skarsgard shines, as well, in a tough role that requires him to be at once admirable and despicable.
The East is a finely tuned thriller with a thoughtful story to tell. What looks at first like heavy-handed liberalism morphs into moral ambiguity by the second act, but Marling’s not done yet. She makes some interesting choices, and as this film points out, the choice is always there to make.