Eco-terrorism drives the plot of The East, but this propulsive thriller is laced with a humanism that trumps any political agenda. Brit Marling, who wrote the script with director Zal Batmanglij, is hunting bigger game than summer escapism. She and the skilled Batmanglij, who collaborated on the 2012’s Sound of My Voice, about cult infiltration, are asking more of us than snap judgements. Get ready to have your head spun and your preconceptions shaken. For all the narrative bumps on this ride, the journey is well worth the taking.
Marling mesmerizes as Sarah Moss, an ex-F.B.I. operative now working undercover for a private intelligence firm, run with ice-cold efficiency by Sharon (the sublime Patricia Clarkson). Her first assignment is to infiltrate the East, an eco-terrorist cell with an eye-for-an-eye approach to punishing environmental polluters. If you’re an oil exec with no compunction about oil spills, prepare for some surprises at home. For Sarah, it only takes a hoodie, a pair of Birkenstocks and a foray into dumpster diving (the food we throw out is often still fresh) to get her noticed by the East. But she meets resistance, especially from Izzy (Ellen Page), an activist who senses something not legit about this blonde who’s too cool for outlaw school. There is no leader in the cell, but first among equals is Benji (a magnetic Alexander Skarsgard), a walking contradiction of Jesus-Manson impulses. Winning acceptance and sexual interest from Benji gets Sarah a key role in their next assignment (they cell calls them jams). The goal? To slip into a party for a pharmaceutical company and slip them a taste of their own medicine. Batmanglij invests the sequence with almost unbearable suspense.
There’s more where that came from. But it’s the emotional dynamics of the group that pull us in. The acting is top-tier all the way. Page brims with ferocity and feeling, notably in a piercing scene with her estranged father. And Marling and Skarsgard nail every nuance in locating the secret hearts of characters who pride themselves on revealing nothing. The film’s climax may be clunky and unsatisfying, but it takes us to where the film’s been heading all along, a moral abyss. You leave The East with a hunger to know more and a good idea of where to look. For Marling and Batmanglij that counts as mission accomplished. For audiences, it’s that rare thing these days – a movie that matters.