Movie review: Eco-terrorism thriller “The East” both unexpected and familiar

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From the June 13, 2013 edition

The people who bring you “The East” may be proving to be one-trick ponies, but at least I like that trick. And if you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you, right?

Director Zal Batmanglij and actress Brit Marling last teamed up in last year’s “Sound of my Voice,” a disquieting drama about a couple of investigative journalists who infiltrate a cult.

“The East” mines similar themes. Sarah Moss (Marling) is an agent for an elite private intelligence firm. Corporations pay this firm for intelligence on fringe groups that may undermine their profits, aka “eco terrorists.” And, as tends to be the case when you’re talking about large corporations, the money is good.

Sarah goes deep undercover to infiltrate an anarchic group called The East. Under the leadership of the charismatic Benji (“True Blood” hunk Alexander Skarsgard), the group plots to take actions against corporations they feel place profit over the value of life.

Even as she becomes somewhat sympathetic to their cause — it’s tough not to feel for a child who has cancer due to factory-contaminated water) — Sarah is repelled by the group’s tactics.

As with “Sound of my Voice,” there’s a lot of ambiguity at play here, but it lays out a tense thriller that’s well-acted and directed with a steady hand.

Marling is on the other end of the Stockholm syndrome this time — she played the cult leader in “Sound” — but she again proves to be a star capable of carrying a film. Skarsgard’s mix of cool hippie charm and explosiveness is also hypnotic, as is a performance by Ellen Page as a fellow devotee.

It’s a thrill ride to watch as things unwind, sometimes going where you might expect, sometimes not. It’s not airtight, and I’m a little unsure of some of the shifts, but it’s another challenging film from Batmanglij and Marling. It will be interesting to see where they go from here. Hopefully, it’s new territory.