When your debut film is 2011’s masterful sci-fi mystery Sound of My Voice, it’s hard for people not to have outsized expectations of what you’re going to come up with next. When your second film deals with many of the same issues (cults, mysterious undergrounds, how people drift into fanaticism), those expectations run even higher. It’s more frustrating, then, that what results is the perfectly competent but still somewhat generic undercover thriller like The East, a sophomore slump for director/co-writer Zal Batmanglij that from any other filmmaker would have been perfectly acceptable. Talent can be a burden.
Batmanglij’s co-writer Brit Marling (who also co-wrote and starred in Sound and is similarly afflicted with burdensome talent) plays Jane, a former FBI agent hired by a private intelligence firm as an investigator. Her first assignment is to infiltrate The East, an underground environmental activist cell that’s been targeting corporate executives they accuse of spreading pollution and disease. Jane dyes her hair blonde, gets tossed a pair of Birkenstocks by her new boss Sharon (an even flintier than usual Patricia Clarkson), and heads out to gather intelligence on The East for the firm’s corporate clients. A few nights of eating out of dumpsters and hopping freight trains later, she’s face to face with The East. They turn out to be little like the expected ranting radicals. The spark plug of an agitator, Izzy (Ellen Page), is the closest person there to a stereotypical bomb-thrower, while the Manson-eyed Benji (Alexander Skarsgard) is a serene, lead-from-behind type with a potently prophetic edge to him.
The ease with which Jane is seduced by The East would be infuriating in most films of this kind. But here, it’s done very purposefully. Batmanglij and Marling have created a character searching for meaning, but who hasn’t found it in the corporate/government world she’s been skillfully drifting through. Jane is barely able to pay attention to her boyfriend (Jason Ritter) and is work-focused to the point of obsession. A quiet Christian, she seems more intrigued by the collective spirit of these burning-eyed activists living in their grand, falling-down mansion and dreaming up their agitprop schemes. That those schemes come less from strictly political motivations than from a desire to exorcise the guilt of the privileged with Biblical vengeance on those who would transgress their beliefs. (Several members of the cell appear to come from wealthy backgrounds, and at least one seems to be conflating their ideological targets with personal animus towards their family.)
After Jane accompanies The East (whose name is never explained) on their first mission, she loses her tentativeness. Unfortunately, the film’s momentum drains away as Jane shifts back and forth from life at the collective to reporting back in on things to Sharon, who comes off as singularly unimpressed by anything Jane is discovering. Unlike in Sound, Batmanglij doesn’t dig into the psychosexual mechanics of cults and groupthink. There is little attempt as well to detail the power dynamics at work in these kind of small, tightly-knit ideological faux-families, as recent films from United Red Army to Something in the Air and The Baader Meinhof Complex have. There is also surprisingly little discussion amongst the group about the causes they are willing to risk so much for. Instead, the story focuses more on building a tension between Benji and Jane, each actor’s unflappable serenity seeming to complement the other’s in a way that seems destined to lead to them either falling in love or killing the other.
As a thriller about the dirty deeds that many corporations hide behind, The East is a fairly rote piece of work. The presence of Ridley Scott and the late Tony Scott as producers could account for some of the smoothing over of Batmanglij’s more idiosyncratic edges. But there is still much to chew over here, particularly in the film’s evocation of its characters’ bone-deep desire for some kind of collective ideology and purpose. Given the cold blank slate of Jane’s professional and personal lives, it’s no surprise that she would gravitate towards these passionate activists, even as their frustrations with injustice bend them towards terrorism. They have what she needs: a reason.