Zal Batmanglij’s “The East” is a compelling suspense thriller that suggests you question authority without asking you to join the revolution. It is an excellent illustration of the predicament you encounter when forced to decide between two wrongs, while still holding out hope for a right.
The protagonist for this conundrum is Sarah (Brit Marling), a young and ambitious former FBI employee who now works as an undercover operative for a private corporate security firm. For months she has been studying and tracking the movements of a shadowy group of eco-terrorists called The East. Like many such anarchist groups, The East is determined to wreak havoc on irresponsible corporations, and they are not afraid to break the law to enact their vigilante justice.
When Sarah first manages to infiltrate the group, it’s easy for her (and us) to see them as fanatics. Squatting in an abandoned house in the woods, the group members live like neo-hippies, eating secondhand food and displaying their team unity in ways that can only be described as creepy. But the more time she spends with them, Sarah comes to value the purity of their intentions, even if she struggles with their means. Many of the group members have deeply personal connections to their targets that beg sympathy for their radicalism. And when the values of her employer prove to lack the same purity, Sarah’s loyalties go on the market.
The result is a compelling story where the audience struggles to cheer for any of Sarah’s options, and shares the same confused perspective as the film’s protagonist. Forced to choose between a group of eco-terrorists willing to poison those they deem guilty and a firm that isn’t interested in protecting any corporation that isn’t on its payroll, you’re left scrambling to figure out if a “right” choice is left available at all. Then, as you might expect, Sarah also develops romantic feelings for the group’s leader, Benji (Alexander Skarsgård), which complicates the dilemma even further.
To their credit, the filmmakers manage to draw a satisfying conclusion from the mess. But their decision to follow the film’s climax with a rapid photo montage meant to illustrate the story’s aftermath changes an ambiguous ending into one that feels forced and disingenuous, considering the deliberate tension that makes “The East” effective up to that point.
In some ways, “The East” feels like a treatise on the conflict between class, but it stops short of justifying the extremist response of its characters. Marling does an excellent job as Sarah, providing a realistic and reliable viewpoint for the audience, and in supporting roles, Skarsgård and Ellen Page are convincing as eco-terrorists who justify feelings of sympathy even if they don’t fully earn them. Patricia Clarkson is also effective as Sarah’s supervisor and mentor-to-be.
“The East” is on the more adult end of the PG-13 spectrum, primarily for its sexual content, including some brief partial male nudity. While never explicit, several scenes of sensuality will prove awkward for more conservative viewers. There is also some scattered violence and profanity, as well as some medical-related gore.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on the "KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English Composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at www.woundedmosquito.com.