'The East' is a brainy, offbeat thriller

Posted: June 07, 2013

BEFORE IT GOES south, "The East" is an engrossing thriller set between the opposing worlds of corporate espionage and anti-corporate militants.

It's the work of writer/actress Brit Marling and creative partner/director Zal Batmanglij, who together developed the movie after spending several months living among anarchist groups throughout the U.S.

But by far the movie's most interesting creation is its corporate spook, played by Marling. She's Sarah, a former FBI agent who's made the jump to rarified private security, working for a sort of damage-control firm that protects conglomerates from all sorts of specialized threats, including activist disruptions.

Sarah's instincts then, are to act decisively when she infiltrates a notorious cell (led by Alexander Skarsgard), and gains credible information about an imminent and potentially deadly attack on a corporate target.

Here "The East" toys with a fascinating idea - Sarah isn't FBI anymore, as her icy boss (Patricia Clarkson) reminds her. Her new job is to gather information, not to stop a potential crime. Especially if that crime is not against a paying client.

"The East" casually identifies Sarah as a Christian in the movie's opening moments, and of course she's an ex-agent, sworn in her old job to uphold laws that are themselves based on a Judeo-Christian principles going back millennia.

For-profit ethics turn out to be rather a different animal, and Sarah struggles with her new role. She comes to wonder if it's less defensible than the old testament, eye-for-an-eye methods and morals of the anarchists.

It's an interesting framework for a thriller, though "The East" has a hard time devising a third act as interesting as the first two. Sexual chemistry develops between Sarah and the cell leader, clouding the former's judgment, but we don't really feel the heat of this attraction.

We also learn of personal gripes between cell members (Ellen Page) and corporate targets (Jamie Sheridan), and this feels a little pat.

By the time all this is sorted out, we feel "The East" and its protagonist have lost a sense of direction.

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