Brit Marling, who played a cult leader claiming to be a prophetess from the future in “Sound of My Voice,” takes a look at the other side of the equation in “The East,” an audacious thriller about a cultish gang of anarchists who set out to punish those poisoning the planet and the people on it.
Marling plays an ex-federal agent and semi-devout Christian who wears crucifixes and listens to Christian radio, but who will have to hide all that when she accepts a job from a corporate espionage firm that wants her to infiltrate the group known as The East.
The East pulls off “jams,” stunts that directly punish those responsible for oil spills and the like. They videotape their handiwork and humiliate the corporate clients of her new employer. And that simply won’t do. Big business must be saved from these terrorists.
Clean-cut Jane must shed her button-down lifestyle, tell her live-in beau (Jason Ritter) that she’s “going to Dubai” for work, slip on some Birkenstocks and a backpack and take a walk on the counter-culture side. Jane becomes “Sarah,” impressionable member of the Occupy class.
The first fascinating thing about “The East” is Sarah’s pursuit of this group — hopping a freight train, taking abuse from railroad goons, dumpster-diving for dinner. It’s a world the movies don’t show us. Sarah has a new back story and a tough, committed persona that is catnip to the fringe dwellers of The East, when she finally makes contact.
The group itself seems a collection of “types” — rich activists who can afford the luxury of worrying about issues most of the world feels free to ignore. Then Sarah gets to know them — the hacker; the medic, “Doc” (Toby Kebbell), who suffers from seizures; the leader (Alexander Skarsgard) and the combative, militant and oh-so-suspicious Izzy, played with a self-righteous rage by Ellen (“Juno”) Page.
“We are a wake up call,” Izzy intones on their viral videos. “An eye for an eye …We will show no mercy.”
Sarah reports back to the boss (a very mercenary Patricia Clarkson), passing judgment on their group hugs and cultish rituals that teach teamwork, togetherness and commitment to the cause.
“Self-righteousness always goes hand-in-hand with resistance movements,” she lectures her boss, exactly what that boss wants to hear.
But then she goes on their first “jam.” This is the heist-picture part of “The East,” crashing a corporate Cape Cod cocktail party where members of Congress and Big Pharma (represented by Julia Ormond) rub elbows, blithely unaware that the under-tested drug this company has been allowed to market is being served in their drinks.
Punishment fitting the “crime” or not, Sarah is shocked by the immorality of this. But she connects with the group’s message, and its handsome, thoughtful leader. And her boss’ ruthless cynicism alarms her. That leads to inner conflict, guilt. She starts to wonder which side she’s on, and which she should be on.
“The East” beautifully captures the two worlds Sarah / Jane must navigate, a blend of modern high-tech “off the grid” survival and old-fashioned hoboing on one side, and ruthless, self-interested corporate cogs in the machine on the other. Marling, criticized in her earliest films for having a passive persona, is nothing of the sort here. She plays guile with ease and gives Sarah an edge that the early scenes disguise.
It’s too much a movie of “types,” and loses track of story elements that would seem important enough to warrant further exploration. The whole Christian conservative law-and-order mantle feels like a fuzzy afterthought on Jane, forgotten far too soon.
But “The East” offers a lot to chew on and keeps the viewer on the same fence as Sarah, as bad things happen to bad people, and to “good” people — the dilettantes who see themselves as do-gooders but get just as down and dirty as those corporations they seek to punish.
Cast: Brit Marling, Ellen Page, Alexander Skarsgard, Julia Ormond, Toby Kebbell
Directed by Zal Batmanglij, written by Batmanglij and Brit Marling. A Fox Searchlight release.
Running time: 1:55
MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, violence, some disturbing images, sexual content and partial nudity