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In THE EAST, Sarah Moss (Marling) is a brilliant operative for an elite private intelligence firm whose top objective is to ruthlessly protect the interests of their A-list corporate clientele. She is assigned to go undercover to infiltrate an anarchist collective known for executing covert attacks upon major corporations. Living amongst them in an effort to get closer to their members, Sarah finds herself unexpectedly torn between two worlds as she starts to fall in love with the group's charismatic leader, finding her life and her priorities irrevocably changed.
In Another Earth and Sound of My Voice, Brit Marling has made a big splash as a rising starlet with serious screenwriting chops and a charismatic presence that's only partly based on her ethereal beauty. In The East, a quasi-political thriller that she cowrote with director Zal Batmanglij, she heads a cast of appealing young actors who flesh out a gripping story about a radical cell of eco- and social activists whose operations cause real harm that may or may not be justified. Marling plays Sarah, an undercover agent for a private security firm hired by huge (read: evil) corporations that have been hacked, hit, or targeted by the increasingly damaging antics of the shadowy, off-the-grid operations of the East. First it's an engrossing spy tale as Sarah infiltrates the group, then it takes us deeper into the increasingly ambiguous moral actions of individual members as well as their Big Pharma, Big Oil, Big Agra prey. Sarah becomes conflicted about her own allegiance to her employer, a boyfriend who knows nothing about her job, her complicity in the near-terroristic strikes, and the reverse Stockholm Syndrome she experiences as a full-fledged member of the East. Her fidelity to the job (embodied by Patricia Clarkson, wonderful as a mother-like boss who values money more than morals) is seriously undermined by the devotion she sees in the kind, gentle souls who have dedicated their lives to radical change. Foremost among them are the de facto leader, Benji (Alexander Skarsgård), and the fiercely committed Izzy (Ellen Page), both of whom have histories that Sarah discovers gradually and which make them even more nuanced and sympathetic regardless of their overt--or covert--activities. Sarah and Benji believably fall for each other in spite of Sarah's divided loyalties and Benji's nagging suspicions. There's also a sexual tension between Sarah and Izzy, who represent extremes of ideology that move closer together as their individual values are shaken. Apart from its political point of view, which wisely remains fluid right to the end, The East is a terrifically entertaining and suspenseful thriller with real emotional chords, cleverly designed capers, a gifted ensemble cast, and a script that is very smart for its thematic arc as well as its realistic voice. East is east and west is west? Not so much. Orienteering is appropriately skewed by the shattered moral compass of The East. --Ted Fry