You’d be forgiven for assuming a movie about eco-terrorism and corporate espionage is probably a snoozer. My eyes glaze over just seeing those terms, and a vague title like “The East” doesn’t do much to sell it, either. But as it turns out, “The East” is an engaging and almost uncomfortably thought-provoking dramatic thriller about what we — as individuals and as a society — value most. It’s the rare issue-oriented film that has plenty to offer on both ends of the spectrum.
The subject is one that I don’t think we’ve seen before: anti-corporate-terrorism. There are radical environmentalist groups that perpetrate sabotage, vandalism, and other disruptions against companies that pollute the water, sell harmful pharmaceuticals, etc. To fight against these eco-terrorists (as they are known), the film introduces us to Hiller Brood, a private intelligence agency whose clients are the corporations being targeted. Hiller Brood sends its operatives undercover to work among the environmentalist groups, learn of their plans, and warn the corporations.
Our entry into this world is Sarah Moss (Brit Marling), a young woman with some government experience (FBI, perhaps) who has now moved to the private sector, hired by Hiller Brood’s top executive, Sharon (Patricia Clarkson), to infiltrate a collective called The East. By necessity, The East operates under strict secrecy, so Sarah’s process for going undercover is painstakingly elaborate. Fans of spy movies will find this aspect, along with Sarah’s continued efforts to remain undetected, enjoyably suspenseful.
The East is a cult-like entity of about 10 people, led by Benji (Alexander Skarsgard), a charismatic and intense young man who reveals little about his pre-activist life. With a dilapidated house in the woods as home base, the group has someone with medical training (Toby Kebbell), as well a computer hacker (Danielle Macdonald) and people with other useful skills, and they’re not malicious. “Anarchist” is a strong term, though it’s the one their target corporations use. Their “jams,” as they call them, run along the lines of covering a CEO’s house in crude oil, the way his company did to the Gulf of Mexico, or forcing someone to take a dip in the lake that he swears his factory isn’t contaminating.
Sarah’s introduction into the group upsets the balance just a little, especially between Benji and Izzy (Ellen Page), his more strident second-in-command, but overall she is a welcome addition. The question that arises is whether living and working with the “enemy” will lead her to sympathize with them. The companies they’re planning to harass are shady, no doubt about it. Some of them are even breaking the law. But The East’s actions aren’t entirely legal, either. Soon we realize it’s not just Sarah who has to do some soul-searching. Everyone in the group must determine how far they’ll go to protect the environment, and where they draw the line. The question cannot be ignored as the “jams” grow increasingly elaborate and potentially dangerous.
This is the second feature film from director Zal Batmanglij — and curiously, his first, “Sound of My Voice,” which he also co-wrote with Brit Marling, was also about someone infiltrating a secretive, cultish group whose members’ convictions run deep. “Sound of My Voice” was about religion and faith; “The East” is more broadly about our moral stances: how we arrive at them, how they can change over time, and whether we view those changes as positive or negative. We sympathize mostly with the environmentalists at first and assume the story is about Sarah being converted to their side, but then we come to see other perspectives as well. Marling conveys her character’s conflicted emotions well, giving us a view into both sides of the battle while keeping us enthralled by a thorny, tense story.
B (1 hr., 56 min.; )