Screenwriter and actor Brit Marling and her co-writer and director, Zal Batmanglij, have done it again. And I don't mean in a good way.
They run right up to a moment when everything starts to get really interesting and real storytelling risks are about to happen ... and that's where the movie ends. All that electric potential zaps itself out of existence in a flash. You can see it right over the horizon, the truly great movie that almost was, and then it's all gone. And we're left with little more than a novelty cinematic knick-knack that's about the could-have-beens and A-for-efforts and hey-at-least-they're-tryings.
They did it with Sound of My Voice, about a mysterious young woman who ensnares followers for her secretive cult group by convincing them she's a time-traveler from the future. And they've done it with their new film, The East, a suspense drama about a young private intelligence operative who goes undercover among anarchist activists.
I'm hard on Marling and Batmanglij because I don't think they're pulling their punches. I think they want to make great, and genuinely original movies. And I think they will. They've certainly edged closer with The East. The situation here is more ethically knotty and the people are sharper and more realistically rough-edged than in Sound. There's plenty here to chew on, in a very satisfying way, even given the enormously frustrating wall into which the story runs itself.
Marling here plays an agent for elite private-security firm Hiller Brood, one of whose clients is being harassed by the "mosquito" of anarchist collective The East. (In the opening "jam," The East spreads oil all over the interior of the home of an oil company exec whose company spilled oil into a pristine environment; it's revenge for all the oil-drenched seabirds and dead fish.) So Marling's Sarah Moss goes undercover as a homeless freegan hippie and ingratiates herself with them.
Sarah is, alas, almost impossibly naïve for someone who's supposed to be a top intelligence agent. She is shocked to learn of all the corporate crimes the members of The East are incensed about, wrongdoing that ranges from dodgy pharmaceuticals being used to treat veterans to petrochemical companies polluting rivers from which people in small towns drink.
The East, on the other hand, are far more developed as credible characters, most particularly Ellen Page's Izzy and Alexander Skarsgård's Benji, about whom it would spoil to say too much. Suffice to say that they argue among themselves in challenging and provocative ways that never feels like the stuff of storytelling exposition — even though it does serve that purpose, to slowly start to make Sarah question what she's been told about them. It feels more like the grappling of sincere people trying to find the best thing in an impossible situation.
The problems of the world that The East is trying to tackle are far too big and much too many-tentacled for any single movie to solve them. I wouldn't expect it to ... and yet Marling and Batmanglij take us to a place, at their exasperating non-ending of an ending, beyond which some juicy drama lies.
I don't know why they think this is the end of the story. It's not even the end of the story for Sarah: it is, at best, the midpoint of her journey, and they skip over all the best parts.