The eco-thriller “The East” wades into the ethics of corporate polluters and shadowy radical groups bent on stopping them — and finds that answers are as murky as the waters neither side would dare to drink.
Co-writers Zal Batmanglij (who directed) and Brit Marling (who stars) follow the same basic outline as their indie breakout, the Sundance hit “Sound of My Voice,” in which someone infiltrates a secret organization to expose its secrets. Here, that someone is Jane (played by Marling), an eager recruit at a corporate security firm. Her boss, Sharon (Patricia Clarkson), wants Jane to find out what’s going on with a radical eco-terrorist group called The East.
All that’s known about The East is that it has engineered some nasty and creative hits on corporate bosses, like rigging crude oil to ooze from the vents of a petroleum company CEO’s mansion. In its video manifesto, the group promises more attacks, all with a personal touch: “Lie to us, and we’ll lie to you. Spy on us, and we’ll spy on you. Poison us, and we’ll poison you.”
Jane leaves behind a boyfriend (Jason Ritter), changes her identity to Sarah and starts her undercover life as an off-the-grid dumpster diver. Eventually, she’s befriended by Luca (Shiloh Hernandez), who leads her into an abandoned house in the woods. There, she meets the ragtag members of The East as they plot the first “jam” of their spree: to sneak into a pharmaceutical company’s gala party and feed the executives the same suspect drug the company just sold to the military.
Jane/Sarah begins to befriend her new companions, like the kindly Doc (Toby Kebbell) and the taciturn Izzy (Ellen Page), and discovers personal reasons each one has for joining the group. Most intriguing is the group’s enigmatic leader, Benji (Alexander Skarsgard). The deeper Jane/Sarah gets into the case, though, she begins to question the motives of The East’s members and those of Sharon’s corporate clients.
Batmanglij and Marling, as writers, ratchet the tension with every anti-corporate attack and counterattack, while also contrasting the sleek soulless spaces of Sharon’s corporate offices with the funky, grubby vibe of The East’s communal living.
But it’s what Batmanglij and Marling contribute in their roles as director and actor, respectively, that gives “The East” its bite. Marling, as she did in “Another Earth” and “Arbitrage,” makes smart sexy (and vice versa) as she works through Jane’s moral dilemma. And Batmanglij paints a sweeping story with quick, dark strokes that drill deep into the paranoia on both sides of the divide.
A corporate spy infiltrates an eco-terrorist group, but finds morality isn’t cut and dried, in this tense thriller.
Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas.
When • Opens today.
Rating • PG-13 for thematic elements, violence, some disturbing images, sexual content and partial nudity.
Running time • 116 minutes.