MRR Review: "The East"

Photo Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures

MRR Review: "The East"

-- Rating: PG-13 (violence, some disturbing images, sexual content, and partial nudity)
Length: 116 minutes
Release Date: May 31, 2013 (limited)
Directed by: Zal Batmanglij
Genre: Espionage Thriller

Brit Marling, who has made a name for herself in Hollywood writing her own scripts ("Another Earth," "Sound Of My Voice"), cowrote and stars in "The East," which was introduced at the Sundance Film Festival in January. The art-house fanbase she earned by her previous works might not have been expecting such a conventional thriller. Granted, it is a well-made one.

Marling plays Jane, or Sarah, as she is known for much of the film, a former FBI agent who now works for a private intelligence and security firm that specializes in risk assessment. That one phrase is pretty much all that her live-in boyfriend Tim (Jason Ritter) knows about her job. Sharon (Patricia Clarkson), her boss, assigns Jane to infiltrate and expose the East, an ecoterrorist group that specializes in retribution for corporate misdeeds. Early on, the viewer sees the members of the group breaking into an oil executive's house and giving him his own private home oil spill.

Jane tells her boyfriend that she's going to Dubai on assignment, then dyes her hair blond, puts on pre-roughened clothing, and drops off the map. Calling herself Sarah, she hitches rides on freight trains and lives among the homeless while searching for the East.

Finding the group is only the first step, because she also must win their confidence. They bring her to an abandoned house in the middle of the woods and introduce her to their leader, Benji (Skarsgård). He swears that they're anarchists and have no leaders, but no one will be fooled for a minute; his goal is as old as Dante's Inferno: perfectly aimed and calibrated vengeance against wrongdoers or "an eye for an eye-can't be more, can't be less," as Benji later admits.

The plot device of the infiltrator who begins to sympathize with his or her targets is a familiar one, of course, so what happens next is no great surprise. Sarah falls in love with Benji and grows to understand the group and its cause. Even as the group carries out more attacks, which they call "jams," against polluters and the makers of dangerous drugs, her loyalties become harder to predict.

It's easy to see why. Her own boss makes it very clear that her purpose in all this is neither justice nor the protection of private property, but success and good publicity for herself and her firm. Some of these terrorists have been personally harmed by the companies they are attacking, and their targets seem to be paragons of corporate corruption and beyond the reach of the law. The filmmakers, in a recent question-and-answer session, even said that every example of corporate misbehavior was based as closely as possible on a real-life incident. The movie never quite comes down on the side of the ecoterrorists, but it certainly doesn't portray them as villains.

The pacing of "The East" is steady but quick and will hold the audience's attention. The directing and acting are all first rate. Marling and Batmanglij, who researched the movie by living among freegans-people who live on discarded food-are able to give a realistic feel to the group and its surroundings. The core of the film is Marling's Jane/Sarah, who is governed by a strong moral sense no matter who she is being or what she is doing.

Patricia Clarkson's performance is tombstone cold. Alexander Skarsgård effortlessly dominates the screen, giving the group an almost cult-like feel. Julia Ormond has a brief but unforgettable role as a pharmaceutical executive. The breakout performance is that of Toby Kebbell, or Doc, a former doctor who suffers from Parkinson's-like tremors since taking what he thought was a safe drug.

And then, of course, there's Ellen Page. Those who fell in love with her in "Juno," admired her in "Inception," or were terrified by her in "Hard Candy" won't be disappointed by her performance as Izzy, the loose cannon of the group. Her character is as sympathetic as Doc but a lot scarier, although she also serves as the vehicle for a subplot that the movie could have done without.

With not only her employers and new friends but also the story itself demanding that Jane/Sarah make her choice, the film builds toward an ending that is sure to divide audiences. Some will be disappointed by the ending, while others will see it as the perfect resolution for a character caught between two morally flawed worlds.

Anyone expecting an action movie will come away a little disappointed. "The East" is mainly a psychological thriller, with the main action taking place in the minds of the characters. But it's as well crafted as any thriller and offers more in the way of substance and ideas than most.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5