In this smart and topical eco-thriller, it’s an eye for eye, or as the members of the East, an environmental terrorism cell, put it: “Poison our habitat, and we’ll poison yours.” And for most of The East, their vindictive actions seem eminently rational. The group members threaten to cause havoc—covert strikes they call “jams”—to any corporation doing deceitful, destructive things to the sanctity of nature. They are tech-savvy, ideologically committed, and as intangible as ghosts.
Former FBI agent Sarah Moss (Brit Marling), now an operative at an elite private security firm, is repulsed by the things she has to do as an undercover agent trying to infiltrate the cell, such as eating garbage fresh out of a dumpster. But as she is accepted into the East—a collective of new-millennium counterculture types—her law-enforcement mindset starts to disintegrate. She is attracted to Benji (Alexander Skarsgard), the group’s charismatic leader, and she develops a grudging respect for Izzy (Ellen Page), a caustic zealot.
At first, Sarah has to fake her adjustment to living off the grid with the group, who spend their evenings interacting with each other instead of consuming passive entertainment, and who play games and enact rituals intended to break down barriers between members and build trust. These scenes are expertly squirm-inducing despite being set in an abandoned woodland mansion, perhaps because they subvert consumerism and capitalism in such a personal way. Sarah starts to see their side of things when she learns what a pharmaceutical corporation did to Doc (Toby Kebell), a promising medical student whose future as a surgeon ended when he suffered permanent neurological damage from an antibiotic. This underground society and its mores are presented with enough complexity and empathy to be completely absorbing (the script, by director Zal Batmanglij and Marling, draws on their own experiences as freegan student filmmakers).
Sarah is included out of necessity for a dangerous jam aimed at the drug company, where her training in being able to stay on top of chaotic situations is rendered useless. An undercurrent of tension mounts, and this is not just from Sarah’s secret identity. Her dual life is suspenseful, but also unnerving: Sarah’s drive for excellence is its own kind of ruthlessness, which is both appreciated and suspected by her employer, Sharon (a searing Patricia Clarkson), the head of the security company whose paramilitary effectiveness is known only to its multinational clients. Sharon tells Sarah, “Don’t follow your ego . . . or you’ll end up dead,” advice the young agent takes to heart, and which later intensifies the cat-and-mouse espionage between the two of them. It’s this relationship, rather than Sarah’s throwing-caution-to-the-winds romance with Benji, that brings the film close to greatness.
But as Sarah goes soft on the terrorists whose cause, if not their methods, is righteous, the film, too, goes soft, perhaps backing away from making the radicals too sympathetic. Totally out of character, a member brings out a rifle at a jam, and the group, along with the plot, slide into moral ambiguity and melodrama (oddly, Skarsgard, the savage heartthrob of True Blood, is less than exciting here). As do most Hollywood movies about controversial topics, The East tries to have it both ways. But though its resolution seems compromised, the idealism behind it is unshakeable.