Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The East

Regular readers know how I feel about Brit Marling, the talented writer and actress who's made my honorable mention list the last two years with "Another Earth" and "Sound of My Voice." In the new thriller "The East," Marling plays Sarah Moss, a Christian FBI agent who enters the private sector, joining a corporate-espionage firm (led by Patricia Clarkson) whose oil and gas clients hire her to infiltrate eco-terrorist groups before they can inflict billion-dollar damage. One such group is the anarchist collective called The East, led by Benji (Alexander Skarsgård) and also including Izzy (Ellen Page), the back-turning daughter of the CEO of an international conglomerate whose processes produce major environmental hazards.

Marling proves she can carry the lead in a studio movie with a real budget. She always brings an understated intelligence to her characters that wordlessly conveys confidence and authority, making us feel almost lucky to learn what she's thinking about. The dependable Clarkson is another actor who seems to raise the IQ of any movie she's in by twenty points, and the very busy Skarsgård and even Page (in a smaller but far finer piece of work than "Juno") lend able assistance.

But the film follows too familiar a structure. Elements feel written rather than authentic. The East plans a series of attacks, up to and including homicides, that it refers to as "jams." Sarah's cell phone figures prominently in the storyline, but when we see its screen, it's full of phone numbers with a 555 prefix. A late plot twist gives the whole enterprise a sense of having been constructed toward an aha moment rather than being allowed to flow from the truth of its characters, most of whom are underdrawn. Take Clarkson's Sharon, for example. Think about a woman who comes to head the country's leading corporate-espionage firm. You'd expect her to be so smart and interesting that we'd want to see a whole movie just about her. Here, though, she's merely a pawn in the high-stakes chess game between Sarah and Benji.

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