Brit Marling Co-Writes and Stars in the Murky Yet Gripping Drama, ‘The East’

Sarah (Brit Marling)

 
This guest post by Candice Frederick previously appeared at her blog Reel Talk and is cross-posted with permission.

Brit Marling is one of the most authentic actresses of her generation. Remarkably so. She’s not a method actor, not someone who is particularly possessed by a character. Rather, her performances are organic, like they’re peeled from her own person, and not a distant portrayal. No matter how flawed her characters are, she plays them with the same amount of caress and kinship as if they were all varied parts of one whole.

And that’s just the type of actress needed to serve as the ambiguous moral compass in the riveting new drama, The East. In a film that right from its start questions its own intent, Marling (who co-wrote the script with the film’s director, Zal Batmanglij, who also teamed with her for 2011′s Sound of My Voice) quietly yet fiercely redefines the political drama genre in which it exists. Marling plays Sarah, a smart, recent college grad who’s just landed a job at an elite private intelligence firm. Her first task? To infiltrate a dissident group of individuals, a freegan collective, whose sole mission it is to punish and take down various pharmaceutical companies that they feel have indirectly poisoned consumers with their products (in a sense, giving them a taste of their own medicine). The East refers to their latest, largest, target company in which they have a more personal interest.

Despite their cause and their ultimate actions, this cartel, so to speak, isn’t an aggressive batch. They live not too far away from the political heartland, Washington D.C., in a wall-less house torched several years ago by their leader, Benji (Alexander Skarsgård in a solemn yet passionate role), who once lived there as a young boy. They munch on earthly cuisine mostly found on the ground or in dumpsters and avoid any processed or store-brought items to eat, wear, or consume in any way. Needless to say, they appear as vagrants, even though they consist of once-valued members of society who played their parts in the America machine. When one of them, Doc (Toby Kebbell), a physician, experiences first hand the effects of the industry’s conspiracy, he completely changes his life focus to join the cause. Each of the players, including Izzy (Ellen Page), who’s a little feisty firecracker, have had similar paths where the cause has affected them personally.

Izzy (Ellen Page) and Benji (Alexander Skarsgard)
It is Sarah’s job to learn their tactics and plans and report back to Sharon (Patricia Clarkson), her manager at Hiller Brood in D.C. But things change once she learns the truth behind their efforts.
What The East does that makes it more interesting than many other films that have saturated the political genre is its distinct intangibility. It doesn’t set out with a particular purpose. Rather, it embodies a general sentiment of frustration and complacency. The film paints a portrait of a young woman, already impressionable due to her age and unwavering drive to succeed. Sarah’s not a martyr because she’s not really sure she wants to be, despite an unspecified determination. She’s not sure which position to play; she knows she wants to be in the one that lets her win. Which makes her a prime target for both Hiller Brood and the anarchist group because she’s not on either side, really. She’s extremely accessible, in part due to Marling’s natural vulnerability, which makes her point of view that much more relatable even if it doesn’t specifically resonate with you.

Thankfully, Batmanglij and Marling’s screenplay approaches the subject on a much broader level so that it never comes off as a public service announcement, despite the course of events. Sarah’s strength, even when she becomes submerged with the group, is so magnetic to watch. The film also does a good job of clenching the viewer with a heart-thumping score that increases the intensity and pace of the events. If you’re a fan of Tony or Ridley Scott’s work, you can see their influence there. They are just two of the producers of the film.

When we first meet Sarah (Marling), we know her as a young woman who jogs to the sound of Christian music playing in her ears. With Marling’s introductory narration in the beginning of the movie, you can tell right away that Sarah is a soft, empathetic young woman who could easily fall prey to a more pragmatic personality (like her boss, Sharon, for instance). She’s just trying to do what’s right, what she knows to be pragmatic. She has a steady live-in boyfriend with whom she is in love, though she does not confide in him about her professional escapades. She does everything her boss tells her to do, but her actions become less dependable when she becomes affected by the group’s efforts, providing the film with its murky transition.

The beauty of The East is that it doesn’t take any side; it humanizes both sides and shows the weaknesses and strengths of both arguments. In that sense, it is an honest movie. It doesn’t tell you to think any one way or change your opinion on the pharmaceutical industry. Though the movie takes you inside the lives of those involved in the protest movement, and one pro-industry magnet who’s gone rogue, it doesn’t beat you over the head with either story. It’s the rather sensitive portrayals from each character that you will remember the most.


Candice Frederick is an NABJ award-winning print journalist, film critic, and blogger for Reel Talk.