by M. Faust
Brit Marling, the actress and writer who has been the guiding force behind he independent dramas Another Earth, Sound of My Voice, and now The East (directed by friends from her college days at Georgetown) has developed a following possessed of an almost cult-like fervor. (Ironic, given that two of her films have been about cults.)
Marling also works as an actress for hire (last seen in Robert Redford’s The Company You Keep), where she could probably have a fine career as the kind of pretty long-haired blondes that movies always require to play supporting roles. I would hate to suggest that part of her appeal as a creator of movies concerned with social and metaphysical questions might have less to do with the quality of that work than with the mere fact that an attractive young blonde is capable of concerning herself with something beyond romantic comedies. It would, however, explain the enthusiasm for movies that seem to have no clear idea where they’re going or what they want to say.
In The East, which marks a step up in budget and production value from her earlier movies, Marling plays Sarah, new employee at a hush-hush security film that specializes in taking down eco-terrorist groups for corporate clients. She is assigned to infiltrate a group known as “The East” in media reports that have been fawning over their successes in achieving poetically appropriate revenges on industrial malefactors who have weaseled their way out of legal culpability. (That Sarah’s employer seems to have a quasi-governmental scope, or unofficial connections with the government, is one of many things about which the film is vague.)
In a film that opens with footage of earthbound birds covered in oil, it’s never in doubt where its politics lie. Yet much of the substantial running time of The East is concerned with Sarah struggling with the tactics of the group she joins. (That they take her in so readily at their deep woods hideout despite being obsessed with security is another glaring plot hole.) Their tactics are undoubtedly cruel, but in a poetic way that has fueled many black comedies about revenge. You may wish that this group could find another way to accomplish its agenda, but you’re unlikely to argue with their ends, just as you won’t be terribly surprised at where Sarah finally casts her loyalty.
As an actress, Marling’s lack of emotiveness can be seen as self-control, at least for the same kind of viewers who thought Grace Kelly was a great thespian. As a writer, she’s fond of obfuscation to make her muddy ideas seem merely ambivalent. A lot of the film features the cultists (led by Alexander Skarsgard in long hair and a beard that can’t help but evoke Charles Manson) having terribly banal arguments about the morality of their actions. “Why is it that self-righteousness always goes hand in hand with resistance movements?” asks one character. I can only hope the filmmakers recognized it as a self-criticism.
Watch the trailer for The East
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