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Two years ago Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij took a late premiere slot for their film Sound of My Voice and seemingly took over the Sundance Film Festival overnight. Their low-budget, tightly scripted and mysterious movie was the rare Sundance film that seemed to immediately demand a sequel (though there's no plan for one yet), and the film was bought by Fox Searchlight, which quickly agreed to finance and distribute the pair's next effort, The East.
That film easily could have bypassed a festival debut in favor of a more traditional release, but Marling and Batmanglij have returned to Sundance with The East not just out of nostalgia, but to prove that they're only getting better. A bigger and more conventional film than Sound of My Voice, with genre elements that wouldn't be out of place in a Bourne film, The East is also spectacular, the kind of gripping thriller that precious few mainstream Hollywood directors even attempt these days. Taking the time to dig deep into its characters and constantly blurring the line between right and wrong, The East is provocative and thoughtful-- but also far more entertaining that you'd ever think it had a right to be.
Marling, who played the ethereal cult leader of Sound of My Voice, is this time the audience surrogate, a corporate spy who infiltrates herself into The East, an environmental terror group intent on attacking many of the fat cat clients who keep her employed. Marling's Jane has experience in the CIA and has clearly impressed her hard-nosed boss (Patricia Clarkson), but she's soft and canny enough to fit right in with the kind of anarchist freegans you see hanging around public parks, and then eventually The East. The group is camped out in a crumbling mansion, planning their next attack (or "jam" as they call it) and engaging in all kinds of rituals familiar from cult stories, from group baths in the lake to a touchy-feely game of spin the bottle. Alexander Skarsgard's Benji, with his sharp good looks and enormous frame, is the classic charismatic leader, but he's matched in passion and chilly intensity by Ellen Page's Izzy, who is the hardest on Jane upon her arrival and seems most committed to the cause.
In the beginning we see some impressive details of Jane's double-agent prowess, from her willingness to gash open her own arm to a cannily hidden Blackberry, but that fades away to an almost illogical degree later on-- how, exactly, does she report back to the office so frequently with no one suspecting her? But what Marling and Batmanglij's script lacks in specifics, Batmanglij makes up in the intensity of his direction, assembling fantastically intense scenes for the "jams" and probing delicately into the constantly shifting relationships in the group. We all know the story of these kinds of collectives, how united passion turns into infighting and dissolution, but the characters within The East are so well-drawn that it feels meaningful here, especially with Jane finding herself trapped between her loyalties to her job and the family she's pretended to join.
There's no spy story more familiar than that of one who starts to identify with her double life, but in the hands of a marvelously expressive actress like Marling, who's matched perfectly by the towering Skarsgard, Jane's conflict feels alive and fresh. The East wheezes its way a bit toward a conclusion, as if Batmanglij and Marling are still too hooked on the cliffhanger from Sound of My Voice to give this one an honest finale, but that's truly a small complaint in a thriller with so much to enjoy. Coming to theaters from Fox Searchlight this year, The East is a small scale, welcome respite from the usual drone of Hollywood genre-- and yet another example of how Sundance breakout stars can get only better as their careers get bigger.