The director Zal Batmanglij and his co-writing partner Brit Marling made a fine debut last year with Sound of My Voice, a suspense drama about undercover journalists infiltrating a cult.
It seems they haven't finished with the idea, because The East, their follow-up, is about an outsider infiltrating another closed group, this time an eco-terrorist collective. There is a standard progression in this kind of drama – the undercover operative feels attracted towards the enemy, and loyalties become tangled – but this film doesn't always go the obvious route; it has knots and kinks in it.
Marling stars as Sarah, an ambitious agent in the employ of a private intelligence firm. She's been tasked by her boss (Patricia Clarkson, chilling) to get inside an off-the-grid outfit called The East, which targets corporate evil-doers and exacts personal revenge on their CEOs. They poison innocent people? We'll poison them back.
With unlikely swiftness – via riding freight trains and eating out of dumpsters – Sarah is picked up by an East member and spirited off to a derelict house in the woods where the group hides out. They prove an interesting bunch, from their quietly spoken, charismatic leader Benji (Alexander Skarsgård) to his spitfire lieutenant Izzy (Ellen Page) to their doctor (Toby Kebbell), whose experience of an anti-malaria drug in Africa has given him seizures.
The big pharma company responsible for that drug is the object of The East's next "jam" – their word for an offensive. They will spike the champagne flutes at a company get-together and see how they like their own medicine. Sarah is horrified at this eye-for-an-eye strategy, and yet she discerns a core of justice in it. The script keeps a largely evenhanded line in addressing the issue.
Later, the group kidnaps a CEO whose company has been tipping carcinogenic waste into a local water supply: children have died because of it. Sarah pleads with them not to throw the cowering chief into the same toxic swirl: "Hurting people isn't going to bring anyone's child back," she says. But that won't cut it with these true believers, bent on a public show of retribution. As Izzy, the most fanatical of the group, remarks, "They say two wrongs don't make a right. That makes me think whoever said it has never been wronged before."
So perhaps The East isn't entirely unbiased in taking sides. Marling and Batmanglij have talked about how they spent a summer living off the grid. Their experiences formed the basis of Sarah's journey into this alternative world. At points in the story The East collective are styled "anarchist", but is that the word for people who argue against wasting food and polluting lakes? It's a mark of the script's intellectual confidence that it sees the counter-argument, and voices it. Thus Sarah, on first encountering the group: "Why is it that self-righteousness always goes hand-in-hand with resistance movements?"
Which side of the line she finds herself on forms the slightly improbable denouement. The film could have benefited from a good twist, instead of settling on a halfway-house position that may not convince either way. That said, it's refreshing to see a movie that doesn't flinch from debating with itself, or from dramatising issues that appear intractable. The film-makers may overstate the argument at times, but at least they believe it's an argument worth having.