Deep cover: That’s where an actress can reveal two faces, one real, the other designed to burrow into the confidence of her adversary.
For any performer, the fun, the challenge, comes in finding the shadows in between. In The East, a wily, human-scaled suspense drama, Brit Marling plays an undercover agent for a private intelligence firm. Her mission takes her inside the confines of an eco-terrorism cell called The East, whose targets include petroleum executives who spill millions of gallons of crude without doing a minute of prison time.
Crucial to the plot, as conceived by screenwriters Marling and director Zal Batmanglij, the group fixes on a pharmaceutical magnate whose latest wonder drug is doing the public no favors.
To nail the enemy, Marling’s Sarah must become the enemy. Once inside the collective, she learns of the destructive acts of sabotage and vengeance planned by group leader Benji, played by Alexander Skarsgard. The edgiest and most radical of The East’s members, Izzy (Ellen Page), can’t quite figure out who this newcomer is and why she has signed up for duty. At key junctures of the story, Sarah reports back to her corporate superior (Patricia Clarkson, icy privilege running through her veins), before returning to go a little deeper, a little closer to the edge of exposure.
The reason the movie works, despite some “movie-stupid” developments in the second half, has everything to do with the low-key and unaffected quality Marling brings to the screen. She’s not an overtly exciting or flamboyant actress; partly, I suspect, her instincts (which are correct) tell her she doesn’t need to do a lot of jumping up and down, not with That Face and Those Cheekbones and her warm blanket of a murmur. In Sound of My Voice, another Batmanglij/Marling collaboration, the actress brought a whispery, cryptic sense of mystery to the role of a fervent cult leader. In that picture, a pair of freelance investigative journalists did the infiltrating; in The East, which feels in some respects like a two-hour cable TV series pilot, Marling dons the garb of infiltrator, struggling to resolve her two lives (her man back home thinks she’s in Dubai) and keep separate her two faces.
The most effective scene offers suspense wrapped around a queasy moral dilemma. At a garden-party fundraiser held by the drug company magnate, the eco-activist-terrorists disguise themselves as caterers and party guests. They’re slipping doses of the supposedly FDA-tested and -approved drug into flutes of Champagne, thereby giving the manufacturers a taste of their own potentially fatal medicine. Sarah must play along, but her instincts scream out: Stop!
The East goes a little bit south when Sarah (as always, for more than one reason) finds herself attracted to Benji, and some polemical speechifying is allowed to intrude on the story. But we stick with it. The interplay among the cult members, real and pretend, shows us plausibly gullible idealists venturing down bloody pathways. This is an effective genre piece. And Marling’s quiet way of anchoring a scene is subtle enough to escape detection in almost any narrative circumstance.
The East (PG-13) ★★★☆☆