"The East" opens with reminders of the destruction caused by an oil spill and then moves to its focus. Under the name of Sarah, a woman working for a flashy private intelligence company will infiltrate an eco-terrorist group known as The East. Her insider's knowledge will permit her anti-anarchist employer to foil future "jams," as the resistance activities are called.
The East's brand of justice involves deviously getting a pharmaceutical company's directors to ingest their own wonder drug. They proclaim the harmlessness of their medicine, though they know it causes fatal side effects. Indictments include a factory dumping arsenic and lead into the water supply, and the film takes a swipe at the enormous amount of perfectly good food thrown into dumpsters. The confrontations generate tension, while another central concern is the possible discovery of Sarah's spying and to whom she holds allegiance as she learns more about corporate deception.
Co-writer and star Brit Marling convincingly projects Sarah's conflicted state, and as the intelligence firms CEO, Patricia Clarkson is, as always, perfect. She's wary, smart, and observant in short scenes, showing what an experienced, superb actress can do with a supporting role. Alexander Skarsgård as group leader, Ellen Page as anarchist Izzy, and Jamey Sheridan as Izzy's alienated, despicable father--all turn in first-rate performances. Some of the group scenes go slack, slowing the momentum and ideological interrogation.
Director and co-writer Zal Batmanglij drew on some of his and Marling's own experiences for "The East" when in 2009 they hopped trains and ate discarded food. Their film offers important ideas, addressing both heart and head. What a welcome change for summer fare. At a Landmark Theatre.