The East is a thriller about a female agent infiltrating a group of eco-activists/eco-terrorists - depending on your point of view - that operates much like a cult and has a severe "eye for an eye" philosophy towards corporate offenders. While the spy story propels the independent film, the focus is on the ramifications of the group's actions and the emotional journey of the agent.
The film is the second collaboration between writer/director Zal Batmanglij and producer/writer/actor Brit Marling. The first was 2011's The Sound of My Voice, which starred Marling as a cult leader who claimed she had returned to contemporary times from the future. Two reporters secretly infiltrated the secretive group in the quietly eerie low-budget feature.
This time around Batmanglij and Marling have more money and Marling gets to play the intruder instead of the group leader. Sarah is a former FBI agent now working for a company that protects corporations from outside threats. Her new boss, played in hard fashion by Patricia Clarkson, assigns her to infiltrate the East, a new radical group striking out at corporate bad guys in customized crime "jams."
She eventually finds and gradually ingratiates herself with the group, a shaggy collection of zealots including Doc (Toby Kebbell) and true believer Izzy (Ellen Page). Their leader is Benji (Alexander Skarsgard), who starts off looking like a standard hippie Jesus type but, after receiving a shave and a haircut for a jam, turns out to look like - gasp - a handsome leading man.
Movie star good looks aside, the group dynamics are fascinating, as is Sarah's evolving relationship with the group in general and Benji in particular. The first half of the story is the more interesting, especially watching the two jams - forcing big business polluters to wallow in their own sludge and feeding corporate drug makers a dose of their own bad medicine. The filmmakers take no moral stand on the activities - you must decide whether the actions are outrageous or deserved.
And so must Sarah, as she grows closer to Benji and the others. She sees the idealism and outrage behind the extremism, which causes her to take a second look at the amorality of the company for which she works.
Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling are gifted collaborators. They are adept at creating ominous atmospheres out of ordinary settings and at showcasing the personal side of characters that would be otherwise be dismissed as goofballs. For Pete's sake, the movie includes a scene where the group eats dinner wearing straitjackets and feeding each other with wooden spoons clenched in their teeth and still manages to keep them relatable.
Alas, they're not as good with endings. After watching a series of dynamic, if far-fetched, set pieces, it's hard to see the story conclude in a fashion that suggests it was decided by a committee. Still, the acting is rock solid - Marling has a strong quietly-assured presence and Ellen Page is especially good - and The East manages to entertain and intrigue from beginning to end. Almost.