Brit Marling, who also co-wrote the screenplay with director Zal Matmanglij, stars as an undercover operative – going by the alias “Sarah” – working for an elite security firm geared towards protecting the interests of global corporations. More specifically, protecting these conglomerates from a group of super-secretive eco-activists calling themselves “The East.” Led by the charismatic Benji (Alexander Skarsgård), members of “The East” live in a burned-out mansion in the middle of nowhere, and routinely exact dramatic, You Tube-d revenge on corporate America for their crimes against the environment.
Sarah’s assignment from her steely boss (Patricia Clarkson) is simple: infiltrate the group and gather valuable intel to thwart future attacks and, eventually, help dismantle The East entirely. The only snag? No sooner is Sarah entrenched with Benji and crew that she begins to sympathize with their collective point of view. Helping her see the world in a radical new light are group members Izzy (Ellen Page) and Doc (Toby Kebbell), each of whom has very specific reasons for following Benji’s lead.
What unfolds is a fairly straightforward thriller, with Sarah digging in deeper and deeper with the group and gradually questioning her own beliefs. But the taut storytelling of the film’s first two-thirds slowly begins to fall apart the closer we get to the end credits. The third act feels like the product of audience testing or studio intervention, with a sort of haphazardness about it that leaves a number of questions unanswered and characters unaccounted for. The tidy, perhaps too feel-good-y conclusion also rings a bit false – both in terms of the solution and the characters.
That said, there are some really strong and lovely sequences – such as a new take on the “spin the bottle” game – that prevent The East from becoming run-of-the-mill, and a few standout performances (notably, Kebbell and Shiloh Fernandez) that actually outshine the two key leads. To her credit, relative-unknown (to the mainstream masses, anyway) Marling is solid, and Skarsgård makes for a compelling guru – not quite as creepy as John Hawkes in Martha Marcy May Marlene but just as effective.