All too often it seems like filmmakers get so caught up in plot that they forget they're working in the perfect medium to explore ideas. This isn't the case with Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling, whose first collaboration, The Sound of My Voice, delved deeply into the concepts of perception and reality in telling the tale of a young couple who infiltrate an enigmatic cult. A rare indie movie that used its modest budget to great effect while focusing on performances and atmosphere, The Sound of My Voice was somewhat overshadowed by another cult-themed drama -- the similarly haunting Martha Marcy May Marlene -- back in 2011; now, Batmanglij and Marling are back with The East, a film that shares quite a bit in common with their previous effort thematically, yet exceeds it not just in terms of scope, but style and quality as well.
When a mysterious group begin turning unsafe products against the very CEOs who manufacture them, former FBI agent Sarah Moss (Marling) is hired by a powerful intelligence firm to expose the culprits. Before long, she has ingratiated herself into The East, the group thought to be responsible for the frightening attacks, and begins to collect evidence against them. However, Sarah soon finds her sympathies shifting to the very people she once set out to destroy, leading to an intense crisis of conscience that causes her to reassess her priorities as she works diligently to maintain her cover.
For a movie lover, there's no greater thrill than watching a talented storyteller grow, and that's precisely what we see in The East -- an intellectually challenging film that never forgets its first order of business is to entertain. Batmanglij and Marling want us to think about important and topical subjects like eco-terrorism and moral relativism, and by folding those concepts into a story filled with suspenseful situations and colorful characters, they manage to do so without getting heavy-handed. Whereas in The Sound of My Voice they only had the bare resources to express such ambitious ideas, here they have an impressive cast capable of really bringing them to life. It seems as if that talent in front of the camera has helped to bring out the best in those behind it as well; in an era when filmmakers with just a computer and a garage can create whole new worlds, Batmanglij focuses inward instead of outward, exploring his characters and their motivations in ways that prompt deep reflection on the part of the viewer. Things like furtive gestures, unexpected responses, and mundane actions are character building blocks that he telegraphs to us while surreptitiously wrapping us in the complex layers of the story. If an artist's duty is to challenge, Batmanglij and Marling handle that responsibility with a passion that comes through in the story and performances.
As anyone who saw The Sound of My Voice can attest, Marling isn't just a smart writer, but a charismatic actress as well. In that film, she cut an ethereal figure as a sickly cult leader who unknowingly accepts an intruder into her inner circle. Here she takes on the opposite role -- that of the infiltrating agent. Though the character may not be as glamorous or interesting, Marling's subtle expressions, small gestures, and confident delivery ensure that she's equally effective. Meanwhile, as the leader of The East, Alexander Skarsgård is by turns menacing and vulnerable. We're never quite sure how he will react when the truth is finally revealed, and that ambiguity goes a long way in maintaining an air of suspense throughout the film's entire running time. Ellen Page, likewise, displays a passionate air of volatility that's brought to the forefront when she carries out the "jam" (read: mission) that she's been waiting for her entire life. The supporting cast -- including Toby Kebbell as a doctor with a tragic backstory, Shiloh Fernandez as the person who brings Sarah into the fold, and Jason Ritter as Sarah's put-upon mate -- fill The East with characters who are colorful and compelling. Patricia Clarkson, meanwhile, plays it cold as ice as Sarah's shrewd boss, a woman who recognizes her young agent's strengths and weaknesses with equal clarity.
Some may argue that plot parallels between The East and The Sound of My Voice show that Batmanglij and Marling are already running out of ideas just as their collaborative relationship appears to be getting off the ground. All things considered, it's difficult to dismiss that claim outright, though a more forgiving viewer may recognize that the creative duo perform even more capably when given the resources to expand on the concepts and themes they could merely flirt with before. The East is a challenging movie that could prove divisive amongst the passionately political, but to get caught up in the film's politics is to miss its point -- that humans are complicated creatures whose beliefs can evolve with the information we're given (or that's withheld from us), and that those changing viewpoints can have a transformative effect on the way we live our day-to-day lives. If that sounds a bit too heady for a night at the cinema, it should be noted that The East is also a crackling thriller that will keep you guessing until the very last second.