Arts movie review

Cult espionage

Eco-terrorism and the evils of capitalism

6050 theeast 1
Britt Marling and Ellen Page in The East.
Courtesy of Fox Searchlight
6051 theeast 2
Alexander Skarsgård as Benji in The East.
Courtesy of Fox Searchlight


The East

Directed by Zal Batmanglij

Starring Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgård, and Ellen Page

Rated PG-13

Now Playing

The East is a movie for our times. It grounds its narrative in the complexity of the two ubiquitous evils of our capitalist societies. The first is negative externalities — power companies make more money if they skimp on environmental measures, thus polluting the water you have to drink. The other is moral hazards — a pharmaceutical company downplays the side effects of a drug in order to boost its sales.

The East picks its characters from two opposing flanks: the lines of those that run the system (corporations, government) and the lines of those that distrust it to the point of deciding to fight it. The film’s plot presents us with questions about personal choices, collective responsibilities, and the balancing of means and ends. It is an intellectual thriller with plenty of food for thought relevant to the present.

The movie starts with an interesting premise: Sarah (played by Brit Marling) is a fast-rising operative in a company that specializes in protecting other firms’ names and reputations. Sarah’s newest assignment is to infiltrate an extremist eco-terrorist group called “The East,” with the objective of detecting threats they may pose to customers of her company, and neutralizing these threats.

Through an elaborate sequence of events, Sarah effectively infiltrates The East and is welcomed as one of its members. The deeper she goes undercover, the more she learns about the group’s true nature, which borders on cultlike, and the more dangerous the situation becomes for her. She becomes involved in the group’s daily life and some of its operations, and that is when things begin to get complicated.

The movie features an interesting cast, with Alexander Skarsgård as a very convincing quasi-messianic leader of the terrorist cell, and a solid Ellen Page as one of the group’s members, with a convoluted past and a personal vendetta on her agenda. There are several memorable moments in the film, including a piano solo that is used to great effect to convey emotion, and a 20-second silence during a moment of extreme confusion, which turns out to be the pivotal moment in the movie, the point of no return for Sarah in her mission into the monster’s belly.

The movie is entirely driven by the plot, so I do not want to give anything away, lest I spoil it for you. But I will say that after a well-paced buildup, which includes a few turns that had me saying “I didn’t see that coming,” there come a sequence of quick plot twists that result in an unexpected and satisfying conclusion to the story. It is a rather smart movie, which could only have been better if the lead actress, Marling, had better portrayed the internal tensions that her character was undergoing. The same deadpan expression that helps her in the first half of the movie works against her in the second half.

But it is worth your time. It will get you thinking about important things. And that’s what counts.