Eco-terrorist thriller is surreal and smartly written

by David Dixon

Director and screenwriter Zal Batmanglij, and actress and screenwriter, Brit Marling collaborated on the very small psychological thriller, “Sound of My Voice.” Now, they teamed up for a much bigger picture, “The East.” The result is an espionage drama with some famous names and grand themes.

FBI agent Sarah Moss (Marling) is asked by her tough boss, Sharon (Patricia Clarkson), to go undercover and find out information regarding an eco-terrorist group known as The East. After meeting the leader, Benji (Alexander Skarsgard), Sarah starts to feel sympathy for the cult and finds out its reasons for seeking revenge on wealthy corporations are completely justified.

For about an hour, “The East” is one of the more playful and erratic suspense films of the year. Even before Sarah becomes a member of the group, there’s no telling what will happen next on screen.

While Sarah experiences some admittedly bizarre moments with The East, the tone never feels weird just for the sake of being weird. Instead, the activities that members take part in, which include freeganism and a game similar to spin the bottle, symbolize different characters’ relationships and their personal beliefs.

The second half of the work is a more straightforward adventure, but no less compelling than the opening sequence. It’s a far more plot-driven section posing big questions about tragedy, loyalty and identity.

Credit Marling and Batmanglij for playing with genre conventions during the climax and trying something unique. The ending is deliberately set up for what appears to be a crime flick cliche. Spoiler alert: It’s the classic situation when a criminal says he or she is going to do one last job and tries to execute it. What follows next is both unpredictable and very satisfying.

Batmanglij’s direction is tense from the get-go. His pacing is at times quick and to the point, which works beautifully, but he also focuses just as much on the individuals at the center of the story.

The actors and writers create people who are smart, strange and more complex than they seem on the surface. Marling gives the audience a reason to become invested in the world she helped invent. Her empathetic performance makes it very clear why Sarah would join The East.

Skarsgard brings a lot of nuance when playing Benji. He’s charismatic and intense while depicting a man who could have easily been a villain, but is instead well fleshed out and occasionally poignant after he shares his reasoning for starting the anarchist collective.

Equally impressive is Ellen Page’s portrayal of Izzy, one of The East’s more active members. While the immensely likeable Page starts out as cold and distant, she eventually gives her role a soul, especially during one of the more shocking and sad twists toward the conclusion of the mystery.

Original, bold and full of thought-provoking ideas, “The East” works as a combination of wonderfully trippy entertainment and a statement involving morality. Be prepared to keep thinking about some of the messages long after the movie is complete.