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MOVIE REVIEW: 'The East' reminiscent of '70s paranoia-based thrillers

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Special Photo: Fox Searchlight Brit Marling plays Sarah and Alexander Skarsgard plays Benji in "The East."

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Special Photo: Fox Searchlight Patricia Clarkson stars in "The East."

The East

(PG-13)

2 stars out of four stars

In her debut ("Another Earth," which she also wrote), actress Brit Marling established herself as a thinking person's leading lady. While very attractive, she lacks that "glamorous movie star beauty" most audiences expect. This works in her favor because A. she doesn't take the road most travelled, B. she probably doesn't care and C. some people (both men and women) like performers to whom they can relate on a physical level. Her beauty is approachable, not a threat.

With "The East" -- her followup to "The Sound of My Voice" -- a pattern seems to be developing: Marling writes movies with herself in mind as the lead, kind of but not exactly like Woody Allen. The material seems purposefully crafted to make the most of her limited range and looks. It's also become clear Marling likes to write about offbeat subjects that bring with them a whiff of danger and/or conspiracy.

Arguably Marling's weakest effort to date, "The East" is reminiscent of '70s paranoia-based thrillers such as "The Parallax View" and "The China Syndrome" with a dash of "Se7en." It is about a Greenpeace-inspired band of eco-terrorists who, rather than merely protest, attack who they perceive to be guilty of negligence with the very same toxic chemicals they create.

The opening credits scene shows them breaking into the home of a petroleum company CEO and flooding his house with oil. No one is killed, but the damage on a PR level is immense. The group -- known as the East -- makes its point, snares a lot of headlines and air time, and goes back underground.

Working as an investigator for a company that specializes in infiltrating organizations like The East, former CIA agent Sarah (Marling) has been picked by her chilly, calculating boss (Patricia Clarkson) to find them, become one of them and eventually bring them to justice.

Pretending to be a dissatisfied rebel-rouser of some sort, Sarah adopts a new hippie/hobo/grunge attitude and wardrobe and starts bumming around an area in southern Pennsylvania where her company believe the East is based. It takes a while but she gets in and Marling gets extra points for presenting this portion of the story with great economy.

With a group like The East any newcomer is going to be viewed as a possible threat and Sarah is wise not to appear too eager to please. Her situation improves greatly when she locks eyes with de facto leader Benji (Alexander Skarsgard) and a smoldering mutual attraction is established. Initially, this doesn't sit well with fellow East member Izzy (Ellen Page), but she changes her tune when she realizes that Sarah can greatly contribute to the cause.

The group's next job (which it calls "joints") is to make their way into a party thrown by the chairman of a pharmaceutical company that makes a drug consumed in high numbers by U.S. armed forces fighting in the Middle East. What The East does at the party and how it does it is best left secret but in the aftermath the members are not sure if they've succeeded and doubts about their mission begin settling in and the same can be said about Marling's narrative.

Instead of following the blueprint of the typical dramatic thriller (plot-driven), Marling goes the route of a character-based film and even then it's kind of shaky. Two scenes that go on for a good 20 minutes total show The East as a communal-type "family" where members dine wearing strait-jackets and another where they play "spin the bottle." These scenes -- which would have fit perfectly in the cult-obsessed "Voice" -- are meant to underscore trust and fearlessness but play out as little more than impromptu acting class exercises.

As she did in her first two films -- in a manner that smacks heavily of M. Night Shyamalan -- Marling and co-writer/director Zal Batmanglij toss in a late plot twist that is designed to throw the audience off guard and into a different mindset -- and it works, until it doesn't. If you backtrack the previous key events in the story, this twist makes no sense and to compound the issue, the filmmakers let it wither and die.

After a non-ending, the closing title sequence -- just like its opening counterpart -- crams (in a good way) a lot of data into a small space of time, which gives the story certain closure, but also at the expense of balance. It contains the very things The East so steadfastly avoided: political bias and soapbox grandstanding. (Fox Searchlight)