Trying to make a terrorist cell even eco terrorists the sympathetic center of a movie is risky. Make them too likable and the story comes across weak. Make them too despicable and the audience won't care what happens to them.
The screenplay for "The East" by director Zal Batmanglij and the film's star, Brit Marling lands firmly in the middle. By finding that thin line, there's no blatant message of good or evil. Instead, there are situations and desperate acts that result in the re-examination of what is good and bad. This approach encourages the audience to invest in the story rather than stay a passive observer a major theme of the movie.
Marling continues to show her strengths first displayed in the powerful 2011 film "Another Earth" as an actor and writer. The films she has written aren't vanity projects. They're serious examinations of emotions and ideas that come to life once she slips into the role.
Sarah Moss (Marling) is an operative for a private security company that serves and protects the biggest business leaders in the world. She's sent undercover to find an anarchist organization targeting the heads of big companies who have ignored ecological problems, all in the name of making money.
Like Alice going through some kind of political looking glass, Moss joins the group run by a charismatic leader (Alexander Skarsgård). Once in, she must face the group's radical members and their extreme plans to cast a spotlight on evil big business.
Marling and Batmanglij have crafted a script where a delicate balance is maintained by showing how both sides do bad things for reasons they consider good. The group talks in idealistic terms, but, as pointed out by Moss, their actions make them little better than their targets.
Such a thought-provoking film works because of Marling's performance. Instead of going the typical routes of her either staying a hard-nosed defender of the law or falling under the spell of the group's leader, her journey is one of self-discovery and transformation. Marling's reawakening from a no-frills, egotistic go-getter to a concerned soul is revealed through every moment of her solid performance.
It helps that she works with Skarsgård and Ellen Page. Their performances are equally strong and that makes for emotional moments that resonate with a deep realness.
"The East" is the kind of movie that will alienate those who only see the world in black-and-white terms. It is about people who live in the gray, between light and dark, that's played out and written with great power by Marling.
"The East," rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, partial nudity. Stars Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgård, Ellen Page, Julia Ormond. Directed by Zal Batmanglij. Running time: 116 minutes. Grade: B+
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, firstname.lastname@example.org or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.