As a film, the ecoterrorist suspense thriller The East never manages to pulls its promising pieces into a fully satisfying whole, but it wins points for grappling with moral complexities and juggling messages and genres. On one level, the film belongs in the fairly large pool of movies indicting corporate malevolence and non-accountability all the way to the banks — not to mention ecological, social, and psychological harm’s way. At the same time, the plot gains its suspenseful flavor of danger and skullduggery as it follows an undercover operative (Brit Marling, in a fine performance) into the stealthy ecoterrorist group called The East, winning trust and membership along the way. Cowriters Zal Batmanglij and Marling previously delved into similar cult infiltration material with 2011’s intriguing low-budget project The Sound of My Voice.
But with The East, beyond those points of familiar filmic turf, plots thicken and moral compasses go topsy-turvy. Our natural distaste for all things terrorist is tested by way of revolutionaries working on ways to break through the deadly deeds of lobbyist- (and loophole-) protected corporations hastening our ecological demise, enacting creative, carefully devised attacks (aka “jams”) by giving a pharmaceutical and water-poisoning energy company tastes of “their own medicine.” Adding further intrigue and subplotting complications, the private company our heroine works for is a corporation-friendly outfit more concerned with keeping clients satisfied than protecting human lives or the natural world.
Unfortunately, the film itself keeps slipping into mediocrity and HBO film–style hokum, coated with generic Hollywood music scoring. Maybe it would have fared better and maintained a stronger sense of veracity in a more naturalistic, mock-doc style.
Yet the fascination of the story’s dynamics and nagging questions keep us tuned in. Early on in the process of embedding herself within the inner circle of The East, Marling’s character senses the reluctance of the firm but quietly charismatic leader Alexander Skarsgård, ideal for the role), asking, “You think I’m not tough enough?” He answers, “I think you’re not soft enough.” Justifying criminal actions for a cause is a slippery slope, a theme also recently explored in Robert Redford’s The Company You Keep, but the wrong-righting impulse, by whatever means necessary, can be a compelling subject of discussion — and film fodder.