Heavy on atmosphere but light on logic, Zal Batmanglij’s Sound Of My Voice was a stylish tease, an exasperating puzzle without a solution. The film did, however, have one great thing going for it: a spookily seductive performance by co-writer Brit Marling, who starred as the enigmatic (and possibly time-traveling) leader of a cult. With The East, the actress has reunited with Batmanglij for another tale of a secret society infiltrated by a nonbeliever. But this time, Marling plays not the messiah, but the mole—a much trickier role, predicated on wavering conviction, but tackled with equal aplomb.
An FBI agent lured into the world of corporate espionage, Marling works as a field agent for a private intelligence firm. Her first major assignment, handed down by Patricia Clarkson’s icy supervisor, is to find and unmask the titular anarchist group, a band of eco-terrorists who have vowed to make corporations answer for their crimes against nature and humanity. Ominously introduced via a viral-video warning to offending companies, the East turns out to be a bit cuddlier than its reputation suggests: When not plotting their next fight-the-power “jam,” these in-hiding radicals—who include Toby Kebbell’s damaged doctor and Ellen Page’s tart-tongued hothead—play spin the bottle and extol the virtues of Freeganism. An undercover Marling earns their trust (perhaps a little too easily), but predictably begins to question her faith in the mission.
Like its predecessor, The East concerns a stealth saboteur whose resolve is tested by a Zen-like guru—in this case, Alexander Skarsgård’s steely leader of the pack. Also familiar is the focus on oddball rituals, including a dinner-in-straitjackets scene that could have been lifted from an earlier draft of Sound Of My Voice. Similarities abound, but Batmanglij’s new one is a richer, more confident film in almost every respect. Whereas Sound was about little more than its “is she or isn’t she” guessing game, The East deftly mixes spy-movie pleasures with headier concerns. It’s a moral mystery, one that puts viewers in the uncomfortable position of identifying with extremists, of questioning whether eye-for-an-eye tactics are an appropriate response to corporate corruption: Is it right to give poison-peddlers a literal taste of their own medicine? Shouldn’t someone hold accountable those who can buy their way out of justice?
Batmanglij has more questions than answers. As a director, he’s grown immensely, demonstrating an almost Soderberghian flare for genre filmmaking. (Marling’s hunt for the East unfolds in slick, propulsive montage.) As a writer, though, he’s still finding his footing. Beyond a dopey romantic subplot, the film’s biggest issue is that it lacks the courage of its convictions. Just as Sound played coy when it came time to provide narrative closure, The East sidesteps its own ethical inquiries. After flirting with outright empathy for the vigilantes, Batmanglij makes a late-game distinction between good acts of anarchism and bad ones. (Whether that’s a total cop-out or a sober acknowledgment of grey areas is tough to say.) It’s best, perhaps, to just accept the movie on its dramatic terms, as a reasonably gripping thriller about the dangers of deep cover, anchored by a terrific actress on the brink of stardom.