The indie-minded thriller The East explores corporate spying, radical activism and undercover work with varying degrees of success. Brit Marling stars as Sarah, a happily married hotshot at a private espionage firm who’s tasked, by her icy boss (Patricia Clarkson), with infiltrating a group of eco-terrorists, aka The East.
Led by the enigmatic Benji (Alexander Skarsgård), The East is a tight-knit collective of trust-fund refugees, corporate causalities and other grudge-bearing misfits (played most notably by Ellen Page and Toby Kebbell). They live on a commune and function, through rituals and a fanatic devotion to punishing corporate evildoers, as a cult.
So far, so good. Marling and her co-writer/director Zal Batmanglij (the two also teamed on 2011’s Sound of My Voice) may have Sarah meet The East through a questionable combination of coincidence and dumb luck, but the script poses enough provocative, if familiar questions early on to cause us to forget it. The most intriguing situation comes when the group slips pharmaceutical executives a vaccine with nasty side effects, leaving us, alongside Sarah, to wonder: Is literally giving the execs a taste of their own medicine justifiable?
The East calls such activities “jams,” a euphemism that would make Republican strategist Frank Luntz clap like a seal, and it’s to Marling and Batmanglij’s credit that they insert these kinds of double-edged details. But then a strange thing happens: The more detail they add, the more unbelievable the movie becomes. The characters’ motivations are too convenient (The East’s attacks often have ludicrous personal connections) and the plot trajectory too predictable (you can guess how Sarah’s marriage fares the deeper she goes).
As Sarah, Marling powers through it all with admirable sincerity, while Batmanglij and cinematographer Roman Vasyanov make even the most absurd moments visually appealing. But if you like politically aware thrillers with moral complexity and structural coherence, see Margin Call and The Hunter. KEVIN CAPP