* * * 1/2
The East, a terrifically thought-provoking thriller about a secret agent that infiltrates an “eco-terrorist” faction targeting billion-dollar corporations culpable in some very dirty deeds, is a hell of a provocative picture, a spy movie that forces us to reexamine our notions of terrorism. Co-written by star Brit Marling and director Zal Batmanglij in their second collaboration following 2011’s The Sound of My Voice, a superbly ambiguous movie about a Los Angeles cult, The East operates in similarly gray areas and keeps us guessing until its final scene.
Sarah (Marling) is an eager operative working for a private security firm in Washington D.C. that provides hushed investigative services to big money corporate clients fearing espionage. After a series of anarchist attacks against major American corporations, the firm’s hard-as-nails CEO (Patricia Clarkson) dispatches her to track down The East, a Weather Underground-esque group of political radicals (think latter day hippies) bent on making corrupt executives pay for crimes against the public and nature. Dangerous antibiotics? Check. Oil spills? Check. Poisoned water increasing cancer? Check. Fracking? Likely high on their list.
Convincing her milquetoast boyfriend (Jason Ritter) that she’s headed to Dubai on assignment, Sarah goes undercover, initially befriending rail yard stowaway Luca (impossibly pretty Shiloh Fernandez) and learning the finer points of dumpster diving (which both Marling and Batmanglij did for a summer of research) before penetrating The East’s inner circle, which includes magnetic leader Benji (the ubiquitous Alexander Skarsgard) and erudite Izzy (an exciting Ellen Page), suspicious of the interloper.
Sarah’s skill set proves valuable to The East—indeed she can pick a lock with a paperclip she’s bent with her tongue and “go rogue” without incident, disemboweling a deer for food while otherwise roughing it in the wild—until she falls for handsome Benji, and then things become complicated.
Increasingly committed to the bohemian group’s social and political agendas, including their guerilla attacks (“jams”), shuttling intel back to headquarters becomes increasingly difficult. And while there is never a question to us that her allegiances must shift for the sake of the drama, both the screenplay, pushing us to reconsider our identifications as does Sarah, and Marling’s nimble performance—particularly when she finds herself in said ideological corner—are consistently engrossing.
The picture suggests, somewhat boldly, that The East are not terrorists, per se, but rather correctors of evils gone unpunished or balancers of karma, such as when they hijack a drug company’s soiree and spike the champagne with the manufacturer’s own dangerous, new prescription known to have disastrous side effects, leading to the very public physical demise of a high ranker executive, well-played by Julia Ormond.
The stakes get higher when a chemical company contaminates drinking water, and in a tense scene Izzy forces its kidnapped CEO into a pond tainted with poisonous waste—a man who also happens to be her estranged father. The pair share a restaurant reunion scene that harkens to the great father-daughter encounter between Christine Lahti and Steven Hill in Sidney Lumet’s 1988 drama Running on Empty, about 60s radicals living underground in the 80s.
As Sarah becomes increasingly morally conflicted, Batmanglij finely hones a suspenseful climax featuring a “will she or won’t she” dilemma that doesn’t resolve itself until the final sequence, a quite unnecessary montage that somewhat simplifies the conundrum, finely etched as it has been for its running time.
Watching Marling in this picture, I was reminded of Debra Winger’s immersion into a world of white supremacy, courtesy of Tom Berenger, in Costa-Gavras’ 1988 suspenser Betrayed. Marling conveys a similar quagmire of emotions and intellect. The actress, her liquid brown eyes radiating smarts and focus has, in but a few films (Another Earth, as the guilt-ridden perpetrator of an accident; The Sound of My Voice, as a charismatic cult leader who just might be an extraterrestrial; Arbitrage, as Richard Gere’s suspicious daughter and CFO; and The Company You Keep, as the adopted daughter whose lineage holds secrets), become a writer and actress of probing curiosity and conviction.
The East is topical, well acted, suspenseful and holds passionate ideals about corporate ethics and the moral implications of big business—not unlike the recent Anonymous headlines—and has enough ambiguity to keep us engaged all the way.
Let’s hope Marling and Batmanglij have a long run together.