According to their interviews, everyone in Hollywood loves the paranoid thrillers of the '70s, but efforts to re-create them are seldom as successful as The East.
The movie opens with Brit Marling (Arbitrage) on a mission in which we can't tell whether she's the good guy or the bad guy. That moral gray area will expand.
Working undercover for a company whose job is to solve corporate problems, Marling's Sarah infiltrates an extreme environmental group called the East. She is drawn into their illegal events, designed to make "all of the guilty experience the terror of their (environmental) crimes," and she becomes conflicted about who the good guys are: Her corporate bosses? The East? Neither?
Like a movie about con men, The East plays little switcheroo games to keep us off-balance. Some are clever, sharply observed details, as when the East teaches Sarah a lesson about selflessness by putting her in a straitjacket and making her figure out how to eat.
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But the stakes get higher with the introduction of Ellen Page as an East member whose blind commitment to environmental terrorism is chilling. With Sarah going back and forth between the East and her ultra-corporate workplace, there's a sense that both places are like cults, and loyalty to either would be a mistake.
The East was co-written by Marling. Like her previous writing/starring effort, Another Earth, it sustains a great premise for about two-thirds of the movie, then doesn't know what to do with it. The East is great at exploring Marling's moral conflict but not so great at making us believe in her relationships with the other characters, which becomes apparent in a dopey, sentimental climax that involves her father.
The East is smart and involving until then, though, and it rights the ship in the nick of time with a closing-credits sequence that points Sarah toward a future where she figures out how to do the right thing.
PG-13 for thematic elements, violence, some disturbing images, sexual content and partial nudity. Fox Searchlight. 1:55. Kentucky.