[Screen It]

"THE EAST"
(2013) (Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgard) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Dramatic Thriller: A risk assessment employee infiltrates an eco-terrorist group in hopes of gathering enough evidence to shut them down.
PLOT:
Sarah Moss (BRIT MARLING) is a former FBI agent who's taken a job working for Hiller Brood, a top-secret intelligence firm that provides highly detailed risk assessment for big corporations and their executives. Telling her live-in boyfriend Tim (JASON RITTER) that she's headed to Dubai, Sarah is actually following the orders of her steely boss, Sharon (PATRICIA CLARKSON), and sticking close to their D.C. home. She's tasked with finding and infiltrating members of an eco-terrorist group known as The East. They behave in a sort of eye-for-an-eye payback mindset regarding making executives suffer at the hands of their own corporate wrong-doings, usually revolving around deaths or serious injuries incurred by others from their products.

After some undercover work, Sarah eventually meets Luca (SHILOH FERNANDEZ) and he introduces her to their group and its cult-like leader, Benji (ALEXANDER SKARSGÅRD), in their cabin in the woods. Most of the other members, including Doc (TOBY KEBBELL), Thumbs (ALDIS HODGE), Tess (DANIELLE MACDONALD) and Eve (HILLARY BAACK) welcome or at least tolerate Sarah. But not Izzy (ELLEN PAGE), the most radical member of the group who's wary of this sudden outsider.

Nevertheless, Benji includes Sarah in the group and she's eventually taken on her first eco-terrorist "jam," a bit of payback that threatens to harm innocent bystanders. From that point on, Sarah must figure out how to proceed within the group, particularly as she seemingly begins to adopt some of their mindset, and especially as she finds herself increasingly drawn to Benji.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
Back in 1973, a robber took several bank employees hostage in Sweden and held them for more than five days. Upon their release, they exhibited the odd and even paradoxical response of seemingly siding with their captor and his actions. This psychological malady became known as the Stockholm Syndrome and was later used to explain the actions of other kidnapping victims such as Patty Heart.

Of course, one need not be a victim for that mindset change to kick in. Men and women often adopt the beliefs and thinking of their spouses, which also holds true for people who join unified groups, be they sports team, frats or sororities and especially political movements. The ones I always find most interesting, however, are the sorts of law enforcement officers who go undercover to infiltrate criminal groups. Some end up spending months or even years within such organizations, and since they must behave in a similar manner to the others in order to prevent their cover from being blown, they certainly have to experience tinges or even full-on breakouts of the old "I'm now one of them" syndrome.

That's part of the intriguing premise of the dramatic-thriller "The East," even if Sarah Moss (Brit Marling) isn't a cop or fed. At least anymore she isn't, as she's left the FBI to go to the private sector and work for a firm that provides risk assessment for corporations that are at risk of eco-terrorists attacking them in one form or another. With her boss (Patricia Clarkson) giving the young woman her marching orders, the former agent goes undercover to infiltrate one such group in order to find its leader and cut off the head of the serpent, so to speak.

The only problem, natch, is that while Sarah might initially find the living and especially eating behavior of the group (including some dumpster diving) abhorrent, she slowly but surely ends up being drawn in. It obviously isn't a completely novel premise, but Marling (a co-writer on the script) and writer/director Zal Batmanglij make it seem fresh and compelling, especially as the protagonist's moral quagmire surfaces and begins to percolate.

The film's early scenes easily draw us in, with Sarah being the viewer's surrogate introduction to the inner workings of such a group. And with some members being wary or downright suspicious of the new woman in their midst, there's palpable tension as we worry that her cover might be blown. That's especially true during their first attack, a bit of comeuppance regarding a pharmaceutical company gathering where the mole must add another faux behavior on top of her already established one.

Alexander Skarsgard is believable as the near cult-like leader of the group, while both Ellen Page and Toby Kebbell create credible characters who'd naturally gravitate toward and join this sort of group due to personal experience and exposure to the harm of the corporate bad guys of the world. And Marling makes for a sympathetic protagonist who ends up torn between her assignment and what the group is trying to accomplish, as well as her live-in boyfriend (Jason) back home vs. the new but alluring stranger in her life.

The latter element is the least successful bit in the film, not only due to it being far too rote (think of how many times you've seen that sort of romance arise in any movie), but also because it diminishes the integrity of the main character. It's not that she can't be a flawed hero, but considering her FBI background, you more than half-expect she has additional layers of subterfuge up her sleeves.

There's a tiny bit of that at the end of the film (in a fairly anti-climatic conclusion for a pic like this), but the filmmakers don't employ enough of that sort of material in the second half to make it as exciting and unpredictable as it could have been. Additional layers of complexity never hurt in any script, but the unfolding of the plot here seems to deflate rather than build as everything draws to a close.

It's not a horrible fault, but considering what was building up to that point, it can't help but feel like something of a let-down. All of which will likely prevent most viewers from experiencing their own Stockholm Syndrome in terms of being drawn so far into the proceedings that such faults aren't seen or don't break the allure. Even so, there's enough present that's good enough to earn this film a slight recommendation. "The East" rates as a 5.5 out of 10.




Reviewed April 11, 2013 / Posted June 7, 2013


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