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rochefort [Celluloid 03.21.13] thriller

Counter-culture activists stick it to the man and his mega-corporations all the time in the movies. Sometimes they're depicted as LSD-mainlining Manson family rejects and other times as angelic Buddhas, but rarely do they resemble actual live people, which is frustrating, but not terribly surprising. Most filmmakers can't really relate to the fringe-dweller's lifestyle, since they have to depend on a sizable network of people and resources to get things done, whereas true radicals remove themselves so drastically from everyday society that it's rare when one of them pops back in long enough to share some details. And oftentimes when they do, or when their accounts are adapted by an outsider, they're either romanticized or demonized, and the message or insight becomes no more than a footnote. Even a film like "Sid and Nancy", as good as it is, seems to recognize that audiences will be less likely to accept a narrative film about the rise of punk and the Sex Pistols than they will a tragic love story. But sometimes we get lucky.

"The East", director Zal Batmanglij's follow-up to the solid "Sound of My Voice", as well as his second feature collaboration with writer/actor Brit Marling, follows Sarah, a liberal Christian who is hired to infiltrate a group of "eco-terrorists", and is a somber, mature, extremely welcome break from the norm.

Sarah is an ambitious up-and-comer who works for a private intelligence company, a consulting firm for various pharmaceutical and industrial corporations that seek to prevent corporate sabotage and activist attacks. Her boss (a stone-faced Patricia Clarkson) gives Sarah her first big assignment: find and penetrate The East, a network of environmentalist cells that's been making a name for itself in recent years. She changes her look, wipes herself off the grid and takes to dumpster-diving and train-hopping, and eventually connects with Luca (Shiloh Fernandez, who seems to be in just about everything these days, but he's quite good here), a newly-inducted member of the local cell. He takes her to the group and they reluctantly accept her, mostly because leader Benji (Alexander Skarsgard) thinks he sees something special in her. As her undercover work commences in earnest, she finds that this isn't the fanatical cult she was expecting. None of them do drugs, they're each highly intelligent and rational, and they share a genuine and deep affection for each other the likes of which she's never experienced. Once they integrate her into their missions, or "jams", her loyalties begin to be tested as she realizes how potentially lethal things might get; she does her best to covertly undermine their plans, but the deeper she gets the harder it is to ignore just how guilty their targets are.

From a distance, it might be easy to dismiss the choices that screenwriters Batmanglij and Marling have made here. There's plenty of pro-environment and anti-pharmaceutical sentiment in the modern moviemaking climate, from "Avatar" to "Side Effects", but the script for "The East" sidesteps broad-strokes propaganda by humanizing everybody on every side. There are no cackling villains, and even in the moments when the film becomes a thriller the various motivations are complex enough that we're often not completely sure of whom to root for. Which is not to say that Benji and company don't go after the right people; they do, but their methods have a sobering finality. This is one of the key reasons the movie stays with you after it's over.

At what point does conscientious activism become terrorism, and is it possible to prompt drastic change without resorting to the most drastic methods? One might not be as likely to walk away with such questions if the characters weren't all so well drawn; Toby Kebbell is particularly good as Doc, a former wartime medic who probably has the best reasons for his actions. Pleasantly morose, Doc grounds the group, committed to action but never reveling in it, and Kebbell's performance nicely conveys the internal struggle of a man fighting to not be overwhelmed by the sad events that brought him to this point in life. Marling is also excellent; we know Sarah is a good person, but Marling does great work in showing just how tiring being good can be, especially when one has the option to just quit and go home.

The surprises in "The East" aren't at all bombastic. There are no tacky twists or major shocks, and the story goes where it logically has to. While there's never really any doubt whom the filmmakers identity with most, none of the characters elude consequence, and everybody gets their hands dirty. The real surprise, and it's not even an underplayed or overly subtle one, is in the care taken to portray the struggle for a cleaner, healthier world as a losing battle for just about everybody.

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