Sundance Review: 'The East' starring Brit Marling and Alexander Skarsgard

It seems that every conversation or piece on Brit Marling must begin with her amazing debut at Sundance just a couple of years ago with the films Another Earth and Sound of My Voice. The latter, a thrilling and ominous exploration of a cult leader and her followers, was cheered by critics but mostly ignored at the box office. Now Marling and 'Voice' director Zal Batmanglij have returned to Park City with their pulsing and exciting eco-thriller, The East.

While sharing many of the same suspenseful traits as 'Voice', The East is a decidedly more mainstream and conventional film, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Provocative and exciting, with bigger set pieces and a fierce devotion to character development, this is the sort of smart genre thriller that Hollywood needs more of.

The film starts off with grainy video footage of a masked individuals breaking into a posh gated home, intercut with shots of animals drowning in a sea of oil. The images immediately clue us in to the intruders' targets, and we learn the homeowner is a CEO of an oil company responsible for a massive spill which they never took responsibility for. The narrator, voiced by Ellen Page, delivers an ominous message about her anarchist group known as The East. Nobody who commits such acts should feel safe in their beds. They all will pay.

Marling, who played the charismatic cult leader in 'Voice' now takes on a completely different role, but she's no less of a presence as Sarah, a confident young intelligence officer hired by a private investigations firm to infiltrate The East and dig up dirt on them. Leaving behind her comfortable home in Washington, DC(the film was shot in Georgetown) and her nice but boring boyfriend(Jason Ritter), she sets off to infiltrate the counterculture movement in hopes of entering The East's orbit. After some rather goofy characterizations of hippies and squatters, the film turns deadly serious as she meets up with Luca(Shiloh Fernandez), and through some clever manipulation convinces him to bring her right into The East's midst.

Those who enjoyed 'Voice' will recognize much of what happens next as very familiar, but no less compelling. Sarah is blindfolded and brought into The East's dilapidated headquarters, where they live in what is essentially a commune where they share everything and waste nothing. Food is acquired from the tossed out leftovers from restaurants, pulled directly from garbage cans, then shared at their communal dinner table. Sarah meets Benji(Alexander Skarsgard), their magnetic leader, and his right-hand woman, Izzy(Page). She also becomes fast friends with Doc(Toby Kebbell), a former surgeon who joined the cause after a supposedly safe pharmaceutical gave him Parkinson's.

Sarah soon earns their confidence enough to participate in a "jam", complicated missions designed to expose those they deem to be enemies. In Sarah's first jam, the group infiltrates a party held by a drug company CEO, spiking their drinks with the same medication they claim to be free of adverse effects. Despite The East essentially being terrorists, they remain sympathetic by targeting those who are clearly evil. The moral grey area remains focused mostly on Sarah, who must weigh her career ambitions against her growing devotion to The East's cause.

Like 'Voice', The East is smooth and calculating in its delivery, but goes a little haywire in the mad dash for an exciting conclusion. Marling and Batmanglij have established a rhythm that may feel a little too familiar, but it's nonetheless smart and evocative. The film was produced by the late Tony Scott, and his name features prominently in the closing credits. I think this is a film he would have been proud to be associated with.