Thursday, June 13, 2013

'The East' poses difficult questions

Acting and intrigue help elevate this thriller about eco-terrorism.

The eco-thriller The East deals with the often-fraught relationship between conscience and action, inviting us to ponder whether the two ever can be brought into complete agreement.

The movie has the right team to consider such a question. Actress Brit Marling co-wrote The East with director Zal Batmanglij, who directed Marling in Sound of My Voice (2011), an effective and involving drama about life inside a cult.

Marling, who stars in The East and who also starred in the haunting Another Earth, is an unusual actress; she seems to play characters who are both doers and observers, projecting a divided sense of self that's full of puzzle-like complexity.

In The East -- a thriller that focuses on a committed band of eco-terrorists -- Marling portrays Sarah, a woman who works for a company that provides security services to corporations that are fearful of becoming targets for environmental extremists.

Headed by a no-nonsense boss (Patricia Clarkson), the firm seems as concerned about profits as it is about protecting lives and repuations. Not a client? In danger? Too bad.

Ambitious and calculating, Sarah leads a double life. She lives with a boyfriend who doesn't know exactly what she does. He believes she's on a business trip to Dubai while she's actually infiltrating The East, a band that conducts trageted anti-corporate operations called "jams."

Benji (Alexander Skarsgard), the quietly magnetic leader of the group, presides over sessions featuring lots of hugs, some of them dispensed during an oddball game of spin-the-bottle. The group lives in a burned-out shell of house in the protective seclusion of a forest.

Two members of The East stand out. Ellen Page proves entirely convincing as Izzy, an eco-ideologue who wrings all feeling out of her decisions. Toby Kebbell portrays Doc, a disillusioned physician with first-hand experience about the perils of Big Pharma.

The members of The East are smart and not entirely unsympathetic. When they're not "jamming," they attempt to live by authentic communal values, and they seem to care about one another.

They're also Freegans, part of the culture that lives on food discarded before it spoils. They seem to have the courage of their dumpster-diving convictions.

The screenplay pulls Sarah in and out of the group, occasionally returning her to corporate headquarters where she reports on activities of The East.

Predictably, Sarah begins to develop personal relationships within the group, attachments that further fragment her already divided life. We know that Sarah eventually will grapple with confounding moral questions: Where do her sympathies lie? Can she accept extreme measures in pursuit of morally defensible ends? Can harming people -- even obvious corporate villains -- ever be justified? Can there be "revolutionary" action without collateral damage?

Think of The East as a better-than-average political thriller, though not a perfect one. The "jams" conducted by The East aren't always credible, and it would have been interesting to know a little more about Marling's character. Still, The East qualifies as a drama with something important on its mind. That, strong performances and a fair measure of old-fashioned tension separate The East from a crowded thriller pack.

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