You're either with Brit Marling or you're against her. The 29-year-old blond filmmaker (who describes herself on Twitter as a tree climber/actor/writer/producer) catapulted out of obscurity in 2011 with two obfuscatory indies — Sound of My Voice and the mournful sci-fi drama Another Earth. Marling specializes in films about faith, loyalty and paranoia, where rationalists argue with dreamers and everybody seeks a greater meaning to what could just be nonsense, which is to say her specialty is life.
In Sound of My Voice, she positioned herself, fittingly, as the leader of a new cult. Audiences agreed, forgiving her usual third-act problems in favor of hailing a lovely thing who would rather write about conspiracies than romantic comedies. Who can resist an ingenue with a Georgetown degree in economics? When Marling returned to her alma mater last month to deliver the commencement address, she urged the graduates just eight years her junior to "hold on to your tribe."
The East is Marling's third film with her own tribe — former classmates Mike Cahill and Zal Batmanglij, who trade off directing her scripts. In it, she acts/writes/produces and, yes, even climbs a tree. Marling plays Sarah, a former FBI agent turned corporate spy, paid handsomely to protect McDonald's, Walmart, Exxon and the like from the terrorists: vegans, environmentalists and activists out to besmirch their names. Handing Sarah a pair of brand-new Birkenstocks, her boss (the coolly cynical Patricia Clarkson) sics her on the latest shadowy supergroup, The East, whom we meet dumping crude oil through the air-conditioning vents of a gasoline mogul's mansion.
Type-A Sarah stays up till dawn shaving the sides of her sandals to look convincingly worn. After lying to her live-in boyfriend that she's headed to the Middle East, she rides the rails in search of an introduction to Exxon PR's Enemy No. 1, a group so secret that members like Luca (Shiloh Fernandez) publicly deny its existence. Like Sound of My Voice, The East is about a human virus infiltrating and destroying a cell. The only difference is that now Marling is the invader, and in Marling's place, our new leader is Alexander Skarsgård, the thinking person's eye candy, looking haggard and frightening. (At least until he shaves off his Manson beard halfway through, when Batmanglij realizes he owes the audience a solid.)
Those who enjoy the occasional Big Mac will laugh with Sarah's struggle to fit in with these hipster hobos. During the day, she feigns delight when a freegan offers her used doughnuts. (In The East, when someone says they know "a good place to eat," it's a dumpster.) At night, she checks into a motel and gorges on fast food. Even though she fails the sniff test — "You smell like soap," accuses pint-sized leftist Izzy (Ellen Page) — the rebels eventually acknowledge they could use someone with her strength.
Sarah is cut from Marling's own image. She's clever and capable, a whiz kid who can't fail. Over the course of the film, she picks handcuffs, punches men, and leaps from trees with the grace of a private-school ninja. If she has a flaw, it's that she can't hide her belief that she's the smartest person in the room. In another life, I'd love to see Marling play Bond: Imagine those Botticelli waves falling over a tuxedo. But in this life, she's still proving her brains, which is why it's disappointing that, for all its empathy and equilibrium, The East has nowhere to go after the script backs itself into a corner. Again with the third-act problems.
Embedded among the activists and pressured to help poison a party of pharmaceutical reps, Sarah is caught between wrong and wrong. These hippies are right, and they're also cruel. Her boss is right, and she's also cruel. There are no happy endings in this world — people get maimed on both sides of the economic divide — but there are almost always happy endings in Hollywood. Which is why Marling's bleeding cynicism is mistaken for depth when she's really just a Socratic starlet who excels at asking questions. Who's worse: the conglomerate who blindly hurts a village, or the vengeance-seekers who willfully target the CEO and their friends? Is a good soul with bad intentions any better than an impersonal giant?
Marling doesn't have an answer, and she evades logic in her dash to close the film before anyone realizes it. But though she won't quite deserve the gold medal she'll be given for effort, we should be glad she exists, if for no other reason than the novelty of watching a young talent prove her guts by gutting a deer. With her dance card full with acting in other people's films and no scripts of her own on the horizon until at least 2015, the indie world's salutatorian is stuck sharing her wisdom on her Twitter account, where one can read the following koans: "People are usually of a certain quality or characteristic and its near but not exact opposite" (15 retweets, 23 favorites), "The kind of morning where u feel u cannot face the day unless someone makes you a sandwich and cuts the crust off" (24 retweets, 54 favorites), and, candidly, "Take me serious" (40 retweets, 34 favorites).