“The East” is an espionage thriller of sorts set in today’s ecological political landscape, where we continue to find the Earth’s resources depleted or damaged by toxic waste as the result of practices by major corporations.
It’s a taut, involving, gripping drama, driven by fine performances and swift direction. The script, co-written by the film’s director, Zal Batmanglij, and its star, Brit Marling (so good in the Sundance faves “Another Earth” and “The Sound of My Voice”), is very smart and thickly plotted, but not hard to follow. Some of the coincidences may be a little too convenient, but not so much that it detracts from the story.
Marling plays Sarah, an ex-FBI agent now working at an elite private investigation firm who lands a top-notch assignment: Go undercover, find and infiltrate an eco-terrorist group known as “The East,” who are driven by “an eye for an eye” mantra and are executing covert attacks on major corporations. They shoot video of the attacks then post them online for the world to see, humiliating the businessmen and women responsible for the harm.
Sarah sets out to find the group by going the hippie route, joining other young intentional vagabonders who want to live off the land and be free from society’s norms. Sarah doesn’t make much ground at first, but then accidentally makes a connection to Luca (Shiloh Fernandez, “The Evil Dead” remake), and thinks this may be the lead she has been craving.
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In return for helping him get out of a violent situation, he wants to help her when she becomes wounded. Sarah is blindfolded and taken to a mysterious location in the woods. When the blindfold comes off, she finds herself in a dilapidated house with several young inhabitants. She is introduced to the group’s leader, Benji (Alexander Skarsgard, Showtime’s “True Blood”), and the confrontational Izzy (Ellen Page, “Inception”), who clearly is reluctant to let Sarah into their circle.
Eventually, Sarah discovers that this is indeed the East when she is asked to go with them on a secret mission. And as she gets to know them more and starts to understand what they believe in and why they do what they do, Sarah starts to question where her true loyalty lies.
To worsen her emotionally confused state, she starts to make a connection with Benji, despite having a boybriend (Jason Ritter) back home.
Eventually, Sarah must decide what world she wants to belong in, as the East gears up for another corporate attack. And when one of the East’s members gets injured, they all question how far they should go in their efforts.
Marling has a captivating air about her. She’s very watchable, not because she’s obviously pretty, but because we get the inkling that something is going on in that head of hers. She’s in almost every scene, and portrays her teetering emotions well.
The supporting cast is equally good, and that’s what makes this thriller more than just routine. All the characters have an arc and grow, and that makes the film emotionally potent. A particular scene involving a game of spin-the-bottle illustrates just how much these people love one another and how they will do anything for each other.
Because, while the film isn’t really set on shaking fingers at a corrupt corporate America, it’s really more involved with studying the choices we make as individuals, and how they always have a ripple effect — for better or worse.