Zal Batmanglij and Britt Marling’s follow-up to their fascinatingly unnerving indie "Sound of My Voice" is another thrilling exercise in a familiar subject, just skewed through a different lens.
The East, directed by Batmanglij and co-written with star Marling, seems at first like a bigger budgeted sister to their previous collaboration. "Sound of My Voice" was about a documentarian couple infiltrating a small California cult to expose its unusual leader (played by Marling). Here, Marling plays Sarah, an undercover security agent who infiltrates an anarchist group called The East that targets large corporations for their crimes against nature and humanity.
Her boss, the icy Sharon (Patricia Clarkson), enlists her to become a member of group. After some initiation and tests of trust, she does in fact, become a part of their crew. The group’a main core is their leader Benji (Alexander Skarsgard), the quietly angry Izzy (Ellen Page), laid-back Luca (Shiloh Fernandez), and the affable Doc (Toby Kebbell) who hides an alarming health problem.
There are others as well, who all hang out together in an abandoned house deep in the woods. There they play innocuous spin-the-bottle games, bathe each other in the river, and feed each other dinner without the use of their hands. At first, the film feels very similar to "Sound of My Voice" in its depiction of cult-like maneuverings, but the difference here is that there isn’t the same sense of foreboding and Benji isn’t some creepy Svengali lording over the others.
These people believe in their cause, believe in each other, and truly think they are doing the right thing. Yes, they are terrorists and the "jams" they set out to do cause irreparable damage. But what Batmanglij and Marling do in their script is allow the audience to make up their mind about what is right and what is wrong. They never feed us answers, and in fact, we never get any regarding who is in the wrong. It’s up to the individual audience member to decide for themselves if The East’s heart is in the right place or if they are just as bad as the CEO’s they are targeting.
As usual, Marling shines as the headstrong but also naïve agent who gets wrapped up in The East’s machinations. We see her trying to decipher whether she believes these people are right or wrong and continually wavers back and forth. But rightly so, because the audience will too. These aren’t just misguided tree-huggers. They have reasons for what they do - many of them personal - and that changes how we view them.
Skarsgard is especially good as well. Again, he never allows his character to slip into typical cult-leader antics. He isn’t a cult leader per se. Sure, there are some funky games and the bathing and campfire meetings are a bit strange, but they are also fairly benign. It is only when the group acts on their "jams" that things get dangerous and intentions become muddy.
Similarly, Ellen Page’s Izzy is so impetuous that she comes across imprudent and potentially dangerous, but when we are allowed to see behind the curtain of her psyche, we understand her and she becomes much more complex than we first realized.
Which is how the movie itself unfolds. There is no cut and dry "we are right and they are wrong" here, and this makes for a mesmerizing tale. The thrills are organic without flashy filmmaking manipulations. Music is sparse, action isn’t over-edited, and the pacing is languid for a conventional thriller. These are the film’s strengths. Add that to a thought-provoking script, stellar performances, and intelligent direction, and this is adult entertainment that makes you think and talk about it long after it ends. We need more movies like this, so hopefully, Batmanglij and Marling’s partnership will continue to engage and surprise us for years to come.