Sundance Film Festival

Brit Marling’s ‘The East’ Is Riveting

Brit Marling stars as an agent who goes undercover in an eco-terrorism group that includes Ellen Page and Alexander Skarsgard in The East. The film, which premiered at Sundance, is an expertly crafted thriller anchored by Marling’s fantastic turn as the conflicted protagonist.

Myles Aronowitz

Two years ago, Brit Marling’s was the biggest story of Sundance: a gorgeous Georgetown University valedictorian turns down a job offer from Goldman Sachs to write and star in a pair of critically acclaimed festival films, as a cerebral woman scarred by a tragic event in Another Earth, and a charismatic cult leader in The Sound of My Voice. Last year, in a cheeky nod to her finance past, she appeared in the Sundance flick Arbitrage that simultaneously humanized and demonized a Bernie Madoff–type, played by Richard Gere.

Marling has reunited with her Voice director and co-writer, Zal Batmanglij, in The East.

The film, again co-written by Marling, stars the actress as Sarah, an agent for a private security firm, who is tasked with going undercover in a dangerous eco-terrorism cell that calls itself “The East.” Ambitious, religious, and D.C. preppy, Sarah is forced to trade in her heels for Birkenstocks by her hard-nosed boss, played with glee by Patricia Clarkson. The East has been wreaking havoc on many of the security firms’ clients, including flooding a big oil exec’s posh Hamptons pad with crude oil.

Sarah eventually makes her way to The East’s ramshackle headquarters, located deep in the forest, and is forced to endure a series of psychological manipulations in order to gain their trust—including a tremendous set piece involving straitjackets and ladles. It is here, as Sarah ingratiates herself to this gang of renegade, New Age idealists, including the skeptical Izzy (Ellen Page), a doctor with a troubled past (Toby Kebbell), and Benji (Alexander Skarsgard), the gang’s attractive and mysterious ringleader, that the film really soars, as the double-agent must reconcile her mission with that of The East, whose ethos of punishing dangerously negligent pharmaceutical and energy companies starts to rub off on her.

Batmanglij’s direction is first-rate. Unlike his aforementioned previous film, The East is a very slick-looking thriller—Ridley and the late Tony Scott, after all, produce it—and moves at a very fluid pace (save a bit of second-act dragging). The music is also mesmerizing, most notably a frenetic, haunting piano solo by Kebbell in this, a thoroughly engrossing mash-up of Martha Marcy May Marlene and Serpico. But the film is, first and foremost, a wonderful showcase for Marling’s considerable talents. The 29-year-old actress has created a fully formed character in Sarah, who possesses great psychological and physical strength yet, like most real people, is filled with fascinating contradictions. Marling isn’t a bona fide star yet, but you may as well consider this her big coming-out party.