Something rather quietly wonderful is happening these days. Enormously bright young actresses are deciding that if the world won’t offer them the roles they want, they’ll write them themselves.
Their young queen is Lena Dunham – a sort of mini-Oprah by virtue of her prominence as the creator and star of “Girls” on HBO. And in Noah Baumbach’s recent “Frances, Ha,” his inamorata Greta Gerwig does something of the same thing.
Most impressive of all, by far, is Brit Marling, who has starred in and co-written three distinctive and remarkable films that are each haunting in their own way – Mike Cahill’s cerebral sci-fi psychological thriller “Another Earth,” and two films about secret cults with director Zat Batmanglij, “The Sound of My Voice” and the one destined to be the best known of all, “The East,” which opens Friday in Buffalo.
“The East” seems the most well-financed film Marling has co-written. Alexander Skarsgard is the leader of a group of ecoterrorists. Ellen Page is the toughest and most suspicious of the group.
The great Patricia Clarkson plays an executive at a diabolical private security firm who hires Marling to investigate the group and head them off at the pass before they start doing real damage.
The group calls itself “The East.” Headlines in newspapers ask rhetorically whether they’re terrorists or pranksters.
“This is the end of the end,” says their leader. “There’s nothing to hide.”
“Jams” are what they call what they do, as if they were musicians getting together and improvising some tunes for fun.
They’re after Big Pharma now. Marling is the counterterrorist spy assigned to learn what’s coming and give Big Business clients a chance to humiliate their humiliators.
Small problem. The spy – who has given up a stable life with a man to go undercover – finds herself being ever-so-slightly persuaded by this band called “The East,” for all their cult behavior and brainwashing tactics to enforce group solidarity (one of their exercises is to have meals where they each feed each other, not themselves).
“Don’t get soft,” says the spy’s boss, an experienced executive and investigator whose radar for a wobbly employee is well-developed indeed.
But undercover is a very tough place for an investigator to be. To pretend to be what you’re not, you risk becoming what you’re supposed to be investigating. Human identity and human morality can both become far more fluid than people think.
Despite the prankishness of the jams, there are grave consequences to some of them, including, as they escalate in one case, the death of one of the most important members of the group.
It is, most assuredly, no joke, especially when we’re talking about arsenic as industrial waste freely polluting the water supply.
In “The Sound of My Voice,” we watched a cult that believed in a living extraterrestrial traveler. In “The East,” there’s not much doubt where your sympathy should go, but it’s very smartly suspenseful anyway about the heroine’s wavering identity.
In a world where we all can’t help wondering just how much “investigating and infiltrating” is being done these days, “The East” is an exceptionally prescient and smart thriller starring a woman who has now given us some of the more arresting and wily and brainy independent film visions of anyone else around.
Three and a half stars
Starring: Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgard, Ellen Page and Patricia Clarkson
Director: Zat Batmanglij
Running time: 116 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for some sex and nudity and thematic intensity.
The Lowdown: A private security spy infiltrates a band of ecoterrorists and finds herself beset with misgivings.