A thriller of style and substance, “The East” follows an undercover security agent who infiltrates a cultlike collective of eco-vigilantes; the title comes from the name of the cell. Reversing our expectations, the tough, smart former FBI agent on the case is a woman, Sarah Moss (Brit Marling, who co-wrote the taut screenplay).
The radical environmentalists she’s pursuing target CEOs of polluting corporations, exposing them to the very toxins their firms loose on nature and humanity. The opening intercuts scenes of the Gulf oil spill with The East’s sludge-for-sludge retaliation in an executive’s mansion.
The opening narration is briskly accusatory: “When it’s your fault, it shouldn’t be so easy to sleep at night. ... It shouldn’t be so easy to get away with murder.” The ethical battle lines are swampy. It’s up to audience members to decide if the radicals are less criminal than the big shots who scatter poison indiscriminately.
The tension between the dictates of law and the demands of justice is just one of numerous stress points feeding the film’s apprehensive chill. In her third outing as a film’s star and screenwriter, the 30-year-old Marling has created a rich, multifaceted character. Sarah is earnestly religious, flawlessly proficient in spycraft, ambitious and guided by a solid moral compass. Her job requires her to lie to her live-in boyfriend (Jason Ritter) about everything, and she struggles with the duplicity.
The head of her global security firm is Sharon (Patricia Clarkson), a woman of cobra-like poise and elegant couture. With their near-rhyming names and blond, patrician physical resemblance, the two could be a discordant upper-class mother and daughter. Before awarding the plum assignment to Sarah, the manipulative Sharon puts her through an ordeal of sibling rivalry with other young field operatives.
The film’s attention to physical and emotional detail is meticulous. We watch, impressed, as Sarah builds a cover identity that will make her seem a promising recruit for the eco-marauders. In a tattered wardrobe and artfully distressed sandals she joins the underclass of train-hoppers and dumpster divers. In time she discovers The East’s headquarters, a decrepit, abandoned house deep in the woods. The lighting comes from candles (romantic, inefficient, unsafe). The lavatory is the great outdoors (ick).
Antagonistic true believer Izzy (Ellen Page) regards Sarah with suspicion. The leader, Benji (Alexander Skarsgard), takes a wait-and-see attitude, and humanitarian Doc (Toby Kebbell) is welcoming.
Director Zal Batmanglij, who co-wrote, lets the story unfold organically. We learn the personal motives that underlie some members’ anger one step at a time. Batmanglij reveals that each situation is more complex than we first understood. With revenge scenarios that play out like low-tech “Mission: Impossible” capers and back-stabbing from Sarah’s corporate overseer, Batmanglij never lets the tension go slack.
It takes a real suspension of disbelief to imagine that even a junior agent like Sarah would be so shocked to learn of corporate wrongdoing. Still, Marling is compelling as a righteous woman in the midst of a situation where both paths of action are wrong. This is the first time she has seemed to be fully inside her character’s skin, not playacting. A fast-rising newcomer to film, the willowy Marling is maturing fast, and encouragingly unwilling to dumb herself down for stock girlfriend roles. This is her strongest work yet and I hope a harbinger of much more to come.