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THE EAST – The Review

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It almost seems as though the spy biz was created especially for the movies, going back to the silents, through the World War II espionage tales and right into the fifty-plus year screen history of James Bond (and his many offshoots from Matt Helm and Derek Flint to Ethan Hunt’s “impossible missions” force). And there’s been the more serious spies as in Hitchcock’s TORN CURTAIN and TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY. The movies have also given us stories about true life spies like last year’s Oscar-winning Best Picture ARGO. With the over-a-decade long war on terror we’ve seen several films such as ZERO DARK THIRTY. But what about a terrorist attack not on a country, but on a corporation? Stories of these secret, shadowy groups have almost made headlines in recent years. These incidents are explored in the new motion picture drama, THE EAST.

As the film opens we witness surveillance footage of the latest strike by the eco-terrorist group that calls themselves “The East”. Black-clad figures push a huge metal barrel through the front entrance of a ritzy, plush estate during the wee hours. As they leave, black crude oil oozes out of the home’s heating vents, sinks, and showers. TV reports inform us that this is the house of an exec from an oil company in the news after one of its tankers spilled oil into an ocean. Sarah (Brit Marling) is an eager, ambitious investigator at a DC based private security firm. Her boss Sharon (Patricia Clarkson) assigns her the task of infiltrating The East (who have claimed responsibility for the home invasion), as per the wishes of their new client (said oil company). Quickly Sarah’s coloring her hair, lying to her beau (he thinks she’s off the Mideast), and joining several nomads living on the fringes (hitchhiking and rail-riding) as she tries to connect to the group. Finally she is admitted to their secret HQ deep in the woods. The small group (seven or eight) is headed by the fiery-tempered, suspicious Izzy (Ellen Page) and the cool enigmatic leader Benji (Alexander Skarsgard). As Sarah joins them in their attacks (called “jams”), she questions her beliefs. She begins to feel a loyalty to these societal outcasts while becoming disillusioned with her employers. Can Sarah complete her job and return to her old life?

An exceptional cast really brings this “pulled from the headlines” story to life! After a brief foray into major studio flicks ABRITRAGE and THE COMPANY YOU KEEP, Marling reclaims her indie “it girl” title (well, maybe a co-title with Greta Gerwig). This tale of deceit and intrigue is really told through her eyes. Sarah begins as a bit of a straight-arrow (listening to Christian radio in her car, twirling her gold cross necklace although she does share a cozy apartment with her boyfriend), but she soon must face some tough choices as many of her beliefs are turned upside-down. Neither “side” is completely good or bad. She must start seeing the world’s “grays”. Page is terrific as the tough cookie that hides the soul of a hurt little girl. Izzy’s tough, focused, and determined until one of the “jams” shatters her world too. Skarsgard projects a Svengali/Charlie Manson vibe in the early scenes as the group hangs on his very few words. He communicates with his piercing stare. We can understand how Sarah falls under his spell when he finally opens himself up to her. Kudos also to Tobey Kebbell as group member/medic Doc who first befriends Sarah and brings her into a “jam” that is inspired by his tragic altruistic past. Clarkson is one tough, controlling boss who can turn on her maternal side in a second to guide Sarah in her duties. There’s also strong performances by Jason Ritter as Sarah’s sweet, but clueless beau along with Julia Ormond and Jamey Sheridan as targeted corporates who are awakened by The East.

Director Zal Batmanglij, working from a script he co-wrote with Marling (this is their second feature collaboration after THE SOUND OF MY VOICE), keeps the pace at a feverish pitch. The “jam” sequences are full of shocks and suspense that exploit our own conflicts over the group’s actions. We’re alternately rooting for them and hoping that a few of the targets can escape unharmed. But the film also works during the quiet times as Sarah’s eyes are opened to some of the world’s cruelties. This is one of the few thrillers that should inspire some great ethical discussions after the lights have gone up. THE EAST is exciting, complex, full of fantastic actors, and one of this year’s best films.

4.5 Out of 5

THE EAST screens exclusively in the St. Louis area at Landmark’s Tivoli Theatre

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Jim Batts was a contestant on the movie edition of TV's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in 2009 and has been a member of the St. Louis Film Critics organization since 2013.

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