In their followup to Sound of My Voice, co-writer-director Zal Batmanglij and co-writer-star Brit Marling infiltrate another insular community, shifting their attention from a kind of sci-fi cult to activist anarchists who live off the grid while planning and executing terrorist acts targeting corporate executives they hold responsible for poisoning people and the environment. The similarities between the writing partners’ first two films are too obvious to ignore: In both, well-meaning individuals go undercover intending to expose the group and bring the leader to some form of justice but find themselves coming under the movement’s spell. But here, Marling’s role has shifted from the mysterious and alluring time-traveler at the center of a small religious movement to a corporate spy assigned to prevent a domestic terrorist cell from attacking her boss’ clients. The stakes have been raised—her success or failure could mean life or death, both for the subjects of her investigation and for herself.
As in all her work, Marling has created a smart, intriguing character. Sarah, aka Jane, is an ambitious one-time G-woman on her first assignment in the private sector: to join a group that calls itself the East and uncover their plans for their next “jam.” But she’s seduced by Benji (Alexander Skarsgard), the head of this hippie enclave, his lifestyle and his ideals—at first repulsed by, then espousing freeganism: foraging for and eating discarded food. But she’s likewise drawn to Sharon (Patricia Clarkson), the powerful executive whose firm Hiller Brood is in the business of protecting corporate clients against groups like the East. Is her indoctrination real or just part of the act?
In the field, Sarah encounters scenarios many undercover operatives presumably face in which the subjects of her investigation commit crimes, even dangerous acts, that she can’t prevent without blowing her cover. Izzy (Ellen Page) is particularly vehement, willing to go all the way for the cause—a stance not everyone in the groups agrees with.
Batmanglij and Marling’s expertly cultivate mystery, especially when Sarah first meets the members of East. A scene in which they put her in a straitjacket and tell her to eat from a bowl of soup is particularly intense, illustrating the threatening veil that hangs over their secluded hideout and illuminating her (and our) mistaken assumptions about the personal qualities they value. Later, a game of Spin the Bottle is tender with an undercurrent of dread. Unfortunately, the fact that Sarah is a devout Christian is a missed opportunity. She prays at the outset to establish this character trait, but her religious beliefs don’t factor into her actions in a meaningful way.
For all its thrilling buildup, The East falters in the very end, relegating Sarah’s decision—for she does have a decision to make—to a montage in a coda that’s too wishy-washy and idealistic for what has preceded it. Sound of My Voice may have ended on a frustratingly ambiguous note, but it was ballsy. Batmanglij and Marling have vision and ambition in spades—they just may have lost a little nerve their second time out.
Director: Zal Batmanglij
Writers: Zal Batmanglij, Brit Marling
Starring: Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgard, Ellen Page, Toby Kebbell, Shiloh Fernandez, Julia Ormond, Patricia Clarkson
Release Date: May 31, 2013