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For a complicated thriller, take a trip to ‘The East’

Lawrence Toppman
Lawrence Toppman is a theater critic and culture writer with The Charlotte Observer.

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  • REVIEW

    ‘The East’

    An undercover agent investigating eco-terrorists begins to find herself sympathizing with the group.

    B+ STARS: Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgård, Ellen Page, Toby Kebbell.

    DIRECTOR: Zal Batmanglij.

    WRITERS: Batmanglij, Brit Marling.

    RUNNING TIME: 116 minutes.

    RATING: PG-13 (thematic elements, violence, some disturbing images, sexual content and partial nudity).


Hollywood used to boast that films had been “Ripped from the headlines!” That once provided an impetus to buy tickets, because filmgoers weren’t as anxious to escape into pure fantasy. (“Ripped off from comic books and other movies!” Nah, not much of a slogan.)

But with Wikileaks and government invasion of privacy the hottest topics in the news, “The East” couldn’t have come along at a more apt time. Writers Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij would have us see the world through the eyes of both eco-terrorists and the private-public confederacy of people who spy on them. It’s a complicated movie, the kind distributors no longer put out much in summer – or, sadly, at all.

Marling also stars as Jane Moss, a former FBI agent hired by an industrial security firm. Her boss (steely Patricia Clarkson) assigns Jane to infiltrate a group called The East, which has begun a series of “jams” to punish offenders in the ways they have offended.

The head of an oil company responsible for a vast Atlantic spill gets a house full of oil. Drug manufacturers who make a product with horrible side effects ingest their own chemical poison and suffer the same consequences as their victims.

Sarah, as this spy now calls herself, cleverly penetrates the inner circle of The East, which is led by the charismatic Benji (Alexander Skarsgård, looking like either Charles Manson or a picture-book Jesus from a white man’s Bible).

“Sarah” has to overcome the skepticism of angry Izzy (Ellen Page) and gentle Doc (Toby Kebbell), whose body and mind are breaking down under the effect of that aforementioned drug. As she’s exposed to the horrors that corporations commit with impunity, she begins to side with her quarry.

I’d guess the public generally thinks of eco-terrorists as selfish and strident, so Batmanglij (who also directed) and Marling counter that: Except for Izzy, who has a hardcore anti-corporate agenda for personal reasons, East members seem reflective and happy.

We’re not meant to side with them, exactly, but to ask whether they serve a purpose. If no one adequately calls corporate polluters and poisoners to account – and history has often shown that to be true in America – what, if anything, can be done about them?

The writers also want us to reflect on the vast amount of waste we create as a society, including the edible food we throw away. But this isn’t a protest pamphlet: It’s a drama about dilemmas and relationships.

The movie is full of low-key, effective performances, with Skarsgård especially watchable as a friendly, patient sort of zealot.

If you’ve seen Marling carry a film, especially one she co-wrote (“Another Earth,” “Sound of My Voice”), you know she prefers to have her characters remain enigmas for as long as possible. Marling plays closed, watchful, smart people who only gradually reveal themselves to others, as Jane/”Sarah” does here, and she’s good at that.

Toppman: 704-358-5232
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