As a scriptwriter, actress Brit Marling has so far demonstrated an unerring instinct for creating meaty, if somewhat hard-to-swallow, roles for herself. Her 2011 breakout film “Another Earth,” which she wrote with director Mike Cahill, centered on a guilt-ridden young woman who’s torn between two equally far-fetched options: having an affair with the husband of the woman she accidentally killed in a car accident or starting over in a parallel universe that scientists recently discovered on a mirror image of our planet.
Then, in “Sound of My Voice,” she played a messianic cult leader/self-help guru who may be a time traveler from the future.
In “The East,” the actress-writer-producer reunites with fellow Georgetown graduate Zal Batmanglij, her director and co-writer on “Sound of My Voice,” for a far more earthbound, yet no less fascinating, assignment. Here, Marling plays a private investigator who, while going undercover to flush out the members of an anti-corporate anarchist collective, experiences something akin to Stockholm Syndrome. The difference is she’s not a hostage bonding with her captors, but a rat who gradually starts to sympathize with those she’s paid to rat on.
As usual, Marling is a pleasure to watch for the psychological complexity and contradictions of her character. This time, the story almost lives up to the performance.
Marling plays Jane, or “Sarah” as she’s known to the members of the East, the eco-terrorist cell that her employer (Patricia Clarkson) asks her to infiltrate after a number of embarrassingly high-profile incidents meant to expose and/or punish people who run companies that pollute, poison or otherwise harm the Earth and those who live on it. Soon she’s moved in with the group, a ragtag band of unwashed hippies who squat in a derelict house in the woods.
Except they’re not exactly squatting.
It turns out that the ramshackle mansion is the childhood home of the group’s charismatic leader, Benji (Alexander Skarsgard), a slumming member of the same monied class that most of their victims occupy, and a man with complicated rationales for the crimes he commits, or as the group calls their actions, “jams.” These jams typically follow an “eye-for-an-eye” model of retribution. The home of an oil company executive whose tanker has leaked will be flooded with crude oil, for example. Sometimes, the penalty is much, much harsher.
Like Benji, others members of the group reveal themselves to have personal motivations behind their politics as well. One by one, the members unpack their pasts for Sarah, along with their prejudices. As it turns out, they’re often in it for revenge, along with environmental justice. As Izzy (Ellen Page), a particularly angry, vendetta-driven cultist, says, “Whoever said, ‘Two wrongs don’t make a right’ has never been wronged.”
“The East” is a pretty taut thriller. Will Sarah get exposed before she gets the information her boss wants? And how much of her growing sympathy for the group’s arguments is based on reason, as opposed to her physical attraction to Benji?
Marling and Batmanglij are also interested in the moral questions the film raises. Are violent means justified if the end is good? And how much violence? When does deterrence cross the line to spite? With the exception of Benji, the members of The East aren’t ideologues so much as idealists. They allow themselves the luxury of debate, questioning and regret.
It’s for these reasons that “The East” satisfies, in ways that Marling’s earlier vehicles didn’t. Its head is in the clouds, but its feet are grounded in reality.
PG-13. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains some blood and violence, brief nudity and sensuality. 116 minutes.