"The East," a radical organization of like-minded eco-activists led by the charismatic, shaggy Benji (Alexander Skarsgard) and the intense Izzy (Ellen Page), is on a mission to catch and stop terrorists. But the terrorists they're after aren't religious zealots, they're big corporations that destroy the planet and human life in the pursuit of staggering profits. In the pursuit of eco-justice the earnest agitators employ some terrorist tactics of their own, destroying homes with sludgy oil and poisoning corporate evildoers. They also live together commune-style in an abandoned house, bathe infrequently ("You smell like soap" is an accusation with these folks) and eat food out of dumpsters. They're true believers who could use an image consultant.
What they get, instead, is Sarah (co-screenwriter Brit Marling), an undercover operative whose job is to infiltrate groups like these, assess their threat level and report back to her employer (an excellently ice-cold Patricia Clarkson). Sarah joins the crew, hides her cross necklace, eats the garbage-donut and helps plan "jams," the counter actions designed to interrupt The Man's business as usual. It's a premise loaded with implications for the world outside the theater, one tailor made by/for Marling and her behind-the-scenes collaborator, writer-director Zal Batmanglij (they also worked together on the spooky religious cult drama Sound of My Voice.) Their mini-collective -- which includes writer-director Mike Cahill -- is interested in outsider stories, but this time around they're working with a relatively bigger budget and what feels like a more intrusive presence on the part of Fox Searchlight, the studio that released Sound of My Voice and Marling and Cahill's Another Earth.
The East is, at its core, a standard crime/political thriller, but one with plenty of moral ambiguity and spiky issues approached from all angles. It initially impresses with its willingness to ask tough questions and you can thank Marling and Batmanglij's desire to tell different sorts of stories for that. But in the process of reaching a wider audience the film shifts gears awkwardly, tying up character arcs and plot lines in a series of neat packages that feel absolutely nothing like what's come before from this creative team. Along with payroll for stars like Page and Skarsgard and a deeper collaboration with a big studio comes a disheartening stumble, one that defuses the hotter topics the film wants to address. Worse, that kind of tidiness lets audiences off the hook the same way a kill-the-bad-guy B-movie would, throwing cold water on provocation: the threat is over, those fictional people fixed it peacefully, maybe someone nice and brave will do the same thing to Monsanto, let's go get some frozen yogurt. Now if only life were more like the movies.