‘The East” is a breathlessly watchable eco-thriller that’s never quite sure who its heroes are. The villains are easy enough to spot: oil company CEOs unconcerned about spills that destroy entire coastlines, pharmaceutical corporations rushing untested drugs to market, power companies that poison local communities.
Against them, the film envisions a small, angry band of idealists who call themselves The East and strike back with “jams,” like filling the oil company CEO’s house with his own crude. And against them is Jane Owen (Brit Marling), a dewy young operative for a private consulting company who is sent to infiltrate the group.
Marling, who co-wrote the script, has the unformed beauty of the latest Hollywood blonde but the sharp eyes and furrowed brow of someone who’d rather hang out at Sundance. Her first film with director/co-writer Zal Batmanglij was 2011’s “Sound of My Voice,” about a pair of reporters investigating a cult leader (Marling). Clearly, the two are intrigued by the pressures, paranoias, and ambiguities of isolated groups.
The consulting firm is overseen by the chilly Sharon (Patricia Clarkson), whose pitch to corporate clients includes lines like “We are in 32 countries protecting your good name — which is why very few people have heard of ours.” Jane is similarly anonymous when the film starts: A mousy brunette whose closet features identical dresses wrapped in plastic, she’s a mystery to the clueless boyfriend (Jason Ritter) who thinks she’s jetting off to a business trip in Dubai.
In reality, Jane has reinvented herself as Sarah, a rootless wanderer who hops freight trains and hangs out with the young and dispossessed in an effort to locate The East. She hooks up with them in record time — I have house keys that are harder to find — and settles into their squat in a decaying mansion out in the woods. The unofficial leader (these are anarchists, after all) is scruffy, dreamy Benji (Alexander Skarsgård), but the group’s passionate ideologue is Izzy (an unsubtle Ellen Page), urging them ever on to the next jam.
Are they pranksters or terrorists? After one stunt in which a pharma company is literally served a taste of its own medicine, the film’s gray area seems more black and white. “The East,” though, is torn between depicting its characters as Truth Warriors and confused children of privilege, and the ambiguity seems only partly intentional.
The filmmakers obviously agree with the group’s rhetoric and admire their rejection of society, but the movie gets hung up on halfhearted thriller plotting and a relationship between Benji and Sarah that smolders convincingly without ever stooping to bourgeois romance. And what are we to make of the group’s spin-the-bottle game, with its hugs and good vibes? Is it a sign of innocence or immaturity? The film has the vaguely condescending muzziness of agitprop that has erased too many of its tracks.
Because Batmanglij is such a skilled director, you don’t realize “The East” is nonsense until it’s over. Marling is a natural movie star, even if she’d hate to admit it, and there are sympathetic performances from Skarsgård and from Toby Kebbell as the group’s resident medic. (He has the shakes from a bad reaction to medication, and, in a scene that could have come from a 1940s war movie, it’s up to Sarah to dig a bullet out of someone during a climactic scene.)
The most interesting and least explored aspect of “The East” is its portrait of a dutiful public servant who only finds her personality by pretending to be someone else. Even then, the movie hedges its bets. Jane/Sarah eventually takes matters into her own hands and charts a course between the immoralities of her boss’s clients and the illegalities of her new friends. Unfortunately, the filmmakers leave that to a hastily sketched montage under the end credits, as if even they weren’t buying it. Don’t they understand that’s the movie some of us might actually want to see?Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.