“The East” is a provocative industrial espionage thriller that pits counterculture revolutionaries intent on exposing corporate villainy against the undercover intelligence specialists paid exceedingly well to keep their compromised clientele clean. By spicing up a complex morality tale marked by sophisticated themes with down and dirty back stabbing and betrayals, the movie turns corporate malfeasance into a spy game that is entertaining without being dumbed down.
On the relevancy scale, “The East” hits virtually all the country’s current hot buttons, from toxic spills to big pharm. To condemn only the big guns would have been the easier and more typical route. Instead, as the stakes rise, everyone’s motives are examined. The dialogue grows more pointed as the debate sifts through the ethics of radical engagement with nearly as much fierceness as its scathing takedown of profiteers.
The excellent cast members handle their various subversive sides with biting precision: Alexander Skarsgard and Ellen Page are the leading true believers Benji and Izzy, Patricia Clarkson has a nifty, nasty turn as the private intelligence corps’ iron lady, and Brit Marling is in the role of main attraction.
Marling once again proves the power of her pen in “The East,” her second collaboration with Georgetown pal Zal Batmanglij, who directs and co-wrote the movie with her. It’s a better effort than “Sound of My Voice,” in which Marling played a cult-like mystic. Whatever its merits, “Voice” was overshadowed by another Marling project, “Another Earth,” when both premiered at Sundance in 2011. “Earth’s” sci-fi redemption story was written with another Georgetown friend, Mike Cahill. He directed; she starred.
In “The East,” Marling’s character is Sarah, a former crack FBI agent and new recruit in the high-end security game run by Sharon (Clarkson). Sarah is the driving force and soon finds herself caught in a crisis of conscience that the film will spend as much time wrestling with as it does with business wrongdoing.
It’s in making the Bourne/Bond-style hero a woman, and a believable one for a change, that sets “The East” apart. Marling has made a habit of resisting Hollywood stereotypes for pretty blonds. Even when she’s not writing, she’s opted for strong female characters — ones working their way through moral quandaries rather than shopping malls or men — although that’s often meant smaller roles. In Nicholas Jarecki’s “Arbitrage,” Marling was the brilliant but disillusioned daughter/CEO ready to wash her hands of Daddy dearest and his dirty hedge fund. In Robert Redford’s recent “The Company You Keep,” her conservative world is shaken when she finds out that her birth parents were ‘70s radicals.
In “The East,” the ground moves again. Sarah is assigned to get inside the radical group that gives the film its name. More Greenwar than Greenpeace, the East keeps exposing corporate malfeasance to withering and legally compromising effect. Sarah goes undercover believing she knows what is right in this world and soon finds herself questioning everything, herself most of all.
The extremists are led by the seductively smart Benji. They’re a well-educated bunch, as eager to debate the evils of consumerism without ever losing sight of the cause and the end game. It’s a closed, cultish society that uses trust rituals to build conformity as much as community and a frightening reminder of how easy it is to lose your moral compass.
Izzy is the embodiment of the true fanatic, and Page takes a darker cut at disenchantment than she did in “Juno,” her Oscar-nominated turn as a cynical pregnant teen. Like the rest, Izzy knows what it takes to move effortlessly in polite society, as Sarah soon discovers when the first “jam,” as their disruptions are called, requires they don tuxes and designer gowns.
As Benji and Sarah, Skarsgard and Marling are kinetic in their instant attraction — smart enough to be wary as they circle each other. It is nice to see a romance fueled by intellect as well as looks, which brings more nuance to the old “will love trump ambition/obsession” question.
Batmanglij, working with director of photography Roman Vasyanov and production designer Alex DiGerlando, creates a clear visual divide between the worlds: the corporate/intelligence side is a little too pristine, the activists a little too grungy.
As the stakes rise and Sarah’s choices become more dicey, the philosophical balancing act is harder to pull off. Near the end, their footing gets a little shaky. But for the most part, “The East” is a dizzying cat and mouse game with all sorts of moral implications.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, violence, some disturbing images, sexual content and partial nudity
Running time: 1hour, 56 minutes
Playing: At ArcLight Hollywood; Landmark Theater, West Los Angeles