The woman at the center of “The East,” played by Brit Marling, is watchful, reserved, outwardly placid, mysterious. Named Sarah, she is a corporate spy sent to infiltrate a band of ecoterrorists called The East.
There is a lot going on beneath the surface of this character, and Marling, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Zal Batmanglij, gradually plumbs those inner depths in a performance that’s remarkable for its thoughtfulness.
Sarah is a character torn. The East has a lot of characteristics of a cult, dominated by a charismatic leader with Jesus-like long hair and beard named Benji, who is played with chilly authority by Alexander Skarsgård. Benji is a stranger to self-doubt who possesses such powerful personal magnetism that his followers (including one played by Ellen Page) are thoroughly under his spell. Isolated, living with them in a hiding place deep in the woods (the picture was shot in rural Louisiana), Sarah finds herself falling under Benji’s spell as well.
Targeting the higher-ups of a pharmaceutical firm whose newest wonder drug has dreadful side effects (effects personally experienced by one of The East’s members), the group covertly overdoses those higher-ups with the drug. Other higher-ups from another megacorporation responsible for dumping poisons in waterways are themselves pushed into those toxic waters. It’s real eye-for-an-eye stuff that the group practices.
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Marling and Batmanglij bring an evenhanded perspective to their portrayals of the characters and issues involved. Marling’s Sarah finds herself growing increasingly sympathetic to the group’s goals of exposing corporate wrongdoing, but she’s appalled by its methods.
The single-minded fanaticism of the cult members that inspires their terrorism is illuminated along with the heedless profit-grubbing of the big corporations. Sarah, able to see the flaws of both sides, becomes terribly conflicted.
Her anguish is conveyed with quiet conviction by Marling. The picture has a lot to say, but it does so without histrionics. And it says what it has to say in the context of a riveting spy story.
The espionage tradecraft Sarah practices to conceal her identity and the mind games she and Benji play, as each attempts to determine the motives of the other, are among the many elements that make “The East” a superior thriller of rare substance.
Soren Andersen: firstname.lastname@example.org