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'The East' review: Wrongs fight wrongs, and a lot goes right

*** (out of four)

At a glance, few actors intimidate less than Ellen Page. She’s the size of an ottoman and sounds like a mouse that learned to speak.

As part of an eco-terrorist group in the riveting, morally challenging thriller “The East,” though, Page and her colleagues transfer frustration toward unpunished, evil corporations into chilling acts of revenge. Unofficially led by Benji (Alexander Skarsgard), the resistance movement known as the East reasons that organizations who poison water and create dangerous antibiotics will only stop if faced with a sometimes-literal taste of their own medicine. As I’m sure you’re thinking, “Wait, who will help defend big business?,” Chicago native and co-writer Brit Marling (“Another Earth”) stars as Sarah, a woman employed by a private security company to infiltrate and unravel operations like the East for the benefit of concerned, vulnerable companies.

Thankfully, Marling and co-writer/director Zal Batmanglij confront the hidden procedures and complicated mentalities behind secret societies far better than their previous collaboration (“Sound of My Voice”). Sarah becomes understandably swept up in the East’s mission, seeing their work not just as the vigilante justice she’s tasked with stopping but a possible instance of ends justifying the means.

The film broadly demonizes its corporate villains and doesn’t exactly examine how they can get away with such unthinkable behavior in the first place. Yet this is a big step forward for a filmmaking team that’s clearly fascinated by outsider culture and its intersection with the world from which it diverges.

“Poison our habitat; we’ll poison yours,” says Izzy (Page), taking “eye for an eye” to a greater extreme when acting on behalf of the many people the East aims to save. Labeled as terrorism, it’s shocking, but as Sarah learns, that doesn’t make it easy to dismiss. 

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com

 

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