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Critic’s Pick: ‘The East’

The Reel Breakdown

Critic’s Pick: ‘The East’

Alexander Skarsgard and Brit Marling in Fox Searchlight's 'The East'

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While thrillers return again and again to the same well of foreigners, zombies and sociopaths to find their villains, so far the eco-terrorists of the world have gotten off scott free in Hollywood movies.

“The East” shrewdly redresses that gap. While raising moral questions about corporate malfeasance (cue shots of pretty sea birds drenched in oil),it dives straight into the ethics of vigilante justice and finds that killing in cold blood is still killing, however noble the cause or clever the execution.

“The East” is both smart and easy on the eyes. The beautiful Brit Marling (who also co-wrote with director Zal Batmanglij) plays an ambitious corporate operative named Sarah who goes undercover in a homegrown subversive cell headed by charismatic Benji (Alexander Skarsgard). With cult leaders who look like that, what red-blooded American corporate spy wouldn’t question her allegiances?

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While the movie supersizes the eye candy, adding Ellen Page as a Benji acolyte, it never sacrifices the seriousness of the subject matter or the plot’s edge-of-the-seat tension.

We know we’re about to enter uncharted, but distinctly contemporary, territory when no-nonsense Georgetown professional Sarah starts shaving the bottom of a pair of Birkenstocks in preparation for her mission. Gradually, it dawns on the audience that she’s making them look more lived in so she’ll fit in when she hits the road in search of “The East,” the secret cell she intends to find, infiltrate and expose.

“The East” plays like Johnny Depp’s “Donnie Brasco” meets Elizabeth Olsen’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” Once the uptight Sarah blunders into the eco-terrorist’s remote hide-out after hitching a ride on a freight train, she has a hard time not getting pulled into Benji’s sexual gravity.

Benji has the focus of a true believer, with the bod of his “True Blood” vampire hunk Eric Northman. Cue the skinny-dipping scene when the group lovingly bathes each other in the nearby lake. Once Sarah dives in, question becomes not if she will cross over, but when.

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What makes “The East” a necessary destination is that it explores the personal why’s behind these homegrown terrorists, and discovers each individual’s mixed motives for taking the law into their own hands. As altruistic as they may be, each one has a perhaps less noble motive for revenge, including Benji.

As Benji, Skarsgard continues his status as the go-to leading man for characters comfortable in their own skin, but at odds with society at large. He and Marling have mad chemistry. She’s compelling in the repressed lawman role: handsome, hyper-rational and emotionally disconnected, a characteristic that makes her especially vulnerable to the mind-games at the touchy-feely terrorist collective.

Co-writer Marling benefits from crafting a lead role that shoulders a strong narrative. Want better parts for women? Write them.

Bottom Line: Go East, young viewer!

See the theatrical trailer for "The East"...