Smartly-cast The East well worth the ride

Reviewer’s Rating: ★★★ 1/2

Writer-actress Brit Marling is developing an impressive catalog of films. The East, a tense, smartly cast drama about anti-corporation vigilantes, is her third and most high-profile project, following the well-received 2011 films, Another Earth and Sound of My Voice.

For the Shreveport-shot The East, Marling reteams with her Sound of My Voice director and co-writer, Zal Batmanglij. As in her previous films, the actress portrays a character in transition.

Marling leads the ensemble cast as Sarah Moss, a former FBI agent who accepts a position at Hiller Brood, a private espionage agency that guards the interests and secrets of the world’s powerful corporations. Sarah, rather than apply her spying, investigative and intelligence skills to matters of national interest, is a private eye for commercial hire.

New Orleans native Patricia Clarkson endows Sharon, Sarah’s calm, confident new boss at Hiller Brood, with a sly coolness. Marling and Clarkson’s first scene together — matching the bright, worthy but not overly confident job applicant with a veteran manager who has an eye for talent — expertly establishes their relationship.

Sarah’s first assignment is to locate and infiltrate an off-the-grid group of anarchists known as The East. Her search doesn’t just take her deep undercover, it removes her from the basics of modern society. No hot showers. Dumpster dives for food. Transportation includes hopping freight trains as Woody Guthrie and the hobos did.

The early inspiration for the movie, in fact, was Buy Nothing Day. On that international day of protest, consumers are asked to “unshop, unspend and unwind.”

Although Sarah is a gifted spy, she locates The East a bit too easily. A small group of young people squatting in the remote ruin of a once grand house, The East collective is bent upon punishing huge companies whom it judges to be corporate criminals.

Most of the members of The East readily accept Sarah. Izzy is the exception. She’s the group’s firebrand, an angry young woman who’s passionately committed to The East’s mission of striking back at corporations whose activities or projects have caused harm.

Ellen Page, in a role vastly different from her laid-back breakout performance in 2007’s Juno, makes Izzy as an ecological warrior. The zealous Izzy is a brave, even fearless young woman. Depending upon whether one is standing on one side of the corporate and ecological fence or the other, she’s either a terrorist or a saint. No matter which, Page’s character commands attention and, when the story ends, hers is the most haunting of any performance in the movie.

Alexander Skarsgård of True Blood fame gets high billing as The East’s naturally enigmatic leader, Benji. Quiet and contemplative, Benji is a man of great wealth who’s chosen to live in low-impact primitivism.

Skarsgård’s soulful Benji is another example of how well The East is cast. The actors play their characters so definitively that it’s difficult to imagine any other performers in those roles.

Marling, even amidst high-achievers Clarkson, Page and Skarsgård, doesn’t get lost in the clandestine mist. Her Sarah takes a journey of consciousness. That journey is not particularly unexpected, but Sarah’s growth is so well plotted and executed as to be worth the ride.