But where Gerwig, the star of "Frances Ha," can tap a loosey-goosey and expertly comic side, Marling is serious enough to be unnerving. And thus far, this eerily focused actress has chosen exceptionally somber material.
She co-wrote and starred in "Another Earth," and performed the same duties on "Sound of My Voice." Those films are unusual numbers, thoughtful and ambitious if not completely realized, and Marling's enigmatic performances are part of their effect.
Marling teams once more with "Sound of My Voice" director Zal Batmanglij for "The East," another intense piece that operates on a bigger scale. ("Bigger scale" must be contractually guaranteed when you add Ridley and Tony Scott as producers.)
Things are quite grim again.
Hired by a private intelligence agency to infiltrate an eco-terrorist group called the East, Sarah (Marling) rolls into the unwashed ranks of these self-styled environmental avengers.
Their modus operandi is not far from a supervillain's scheme: They repay corporate atrocities by visiting similar outcomes (they call their missions "jams") on the offending CEOs and their families -- an oil company exec might get toxic sludge dumped in his house, for instance.
A do-gooder with an unbreakable poker face, Sarah begins to see things from the other side, and it helps that the nouveau hippies in the crowd are charismatic (Alexander Skarsgard, currently onscreen in "What Maisie Knew"), devoted (Ellen Page), and attractive.
Having evoked some sympathy for this outlaw group, Batmanglij and Marling then muddy the waters nicely during a very effective sequence involving a plot to spike the punch at a pharmaceutical company's shindig. The added elixir in question is the corporation's own medicine, which might have unacknowledged and permanently disabling side effects.
"The East" never gets better than this suspenseful and queasy section, and it stalls occasionally while navigating some third-act issues (Page's character leads a jam aimed at her own fatcat father).
Along with Marling's even-tempered performance, Patricia Clarkson adds frost as Sarah's boss, and her resemblance to Marling is a mirror for the younger woman's choice: Develop a conscience or become me someday.
A miscalculation during the end credits, when some conventional uplift is offered, doesn't dissipate the somber mood. Like Marling's previous work, "The East" is not fully realized -- but it is fully engaged.
"The East" 3 stars
A tense piece about an intelligence agent (co-writer Brit Marling) infiltrating the unwashed ranks of an eco-terrorist group. Once inside, the agent's sympathies are tested in various directions--a very interesting set-up for a movie that doesn't quite keep its energy going but makes a pretty good stab at it. With Alexander Skarsgard, Ellen Page.
Rated: PG-13 rating is for violence, subject matter, language.
Showing: Pacific Place, Sundance.
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