In a Jam: Eco-Terrorism Thriller The East Ties Itself in Moralistic Knots

Director Zal Batmanglij aims high but comes up short

ellen page

Ellen Page, center, stars in The East.

A good cast and the speed-dial theme of eco-terrorism should really add up to a film of more substantial mind over matter than the dull, talky and ultimately pointless espionage thriller The East. The subject may be contemporary, but everything else about this rehashed flower-power thriller without thrills feels old as a song by Joan Baez.

Directed by Zal Batmanglij (take a pill, repeat that five times in a row, and I’ll see you in the morning), who co-wrote the screenplay with his actress-partner Brit Marling, it’s about a subversive underground cult called The East, dedicated to sniffing out corporate villains and making them pay for destroying the environment. Sarah Moss (played by Ms. Marling) is a former FBI agent recruited by the head of an elite intelligence firm (played with gritty, humorless reserve by reliable but totally wasted Patricia Clarkson) that specializes in protecting multibillion-dollar clients who have committed corporate crimes from radical anarchists seeking revenge. Sacrificing her private life and a cozy future with a loyal, loving boyfriend (Jason Ritter) who thinks she’s in Dubai on business, Sarah goes underground to infiltrate The East with an assumed name, working hard to win their trust, and joining them on their next assignment, called a “jam.” Scaling barbed wire fences, unlocking handcuffs with a paper clip, speaking sign language, there’s not much the highly trained Sarah can’t do, including making a quick adjustment to the resistant group’s odd ways (eating in straitjackets, carving up the entrails of dead forest animals, living without heat, bathing facilities or toilets, raiding supermarket dumpsters to search for discarded food) and joining their rants against the system, the government, the church and the indifference of society in general. She’s a perfect cultist in the making.

But she makes one big mistake. She falls in love with group leader Benji (charismatic Flavor of the Year Alexander Skarsgård, from What Maisie Knew), to the chagrin of suspicious, well-bred and highly educated rival Izzy (Ellen Page), on the eve of the collective’s next “jam”—a trip to infiltrate a garden party for a drug company marketing an antibiotic that claims to protect members of the military from biochemical agents such as anthrax, but actually destroys their brains. Aiming to give the corporate honchos a dose of their own medicine by injecting the same paralytic drugs into the champagne, Sarah finds herself questioning her own conscience. These people are not terrorists, they’re doing heroic things nobody else can do! The “eye for an eye” value system comes to a head on the next “jam,” when they attack a Pennsylvania chemical company that is dumping toxic waste into lakes by throwing into the contaminated water supply one of the CEOs, who is also Izzy’s father. This time the cops arrive, and in the gunfire that follows, tragedy strikes Sarah unexpectedly.

Sarah ends up torn between two worlds—her job and her new friends. Benji proposes one final “jam” before she either returns to life as a corporate spy in so-called “normal” society or runs away with him to an uncertain romantic future of sex and raw vegetables. This time the target is the company she works for! Unfortunately, the film is so implausible that both choices add up to two evils and one hell of a moral dilemma. The performances are nuanced and real, the action sequences are executed with minimal Hollywood noise and bravura, and the film poses the same challenges to authority anarchists were raising about American involvement in Vietnam. But The East suffers from the same weakness as the cult members Sarah works so hard to understand: a questionable definition of morality that overpowers an ultimate sense of reason.

rreed@observer.com

THE EAST

Written by Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling

Directed by Zal Batmanglij

Starring Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgård, Jason Ritter and Ellen Page

Running time: 116 mins.

Rating: 2/4 stars