Fight Club meets Point Break by way of Revenge as Brit Marling’s undercover corporate security operative infiltrates eco-terrorists led by Alexander Skarsgard and Ellen Page.
Sarah (Marling) is a former FBI counter-terrorist agent now working for Hiller-Brood, a corporate security firm led by the formidable Sharon (Patricia Clarkson). Audacious and well-resourced eco-terrorist collective The East have uploaded the first of four promised ‘jams’ punishing corporate boards for the sins of their companies. Sarah is tasked with infiltrating them, and drops out of suburban DC life to drift thru national parks and hop train carriages like a 1930s hobo looking for East fellow-travellers. Just as she’s despairing she is introduced to the group by Luca (Shiloh Fernandez), and welcomed by leader Benji (Skarsgard) but disdained by his lieutenant Izzy (Page). Sarah manages to maintain her cover long enough to be implicated in a vicious jam of Big Pharma, but falling for the charismatic Benji, and his principled ecological ideals, sees her devotion to her mission wane…
Marling co-wrote the script as a starring vehicle but the film is all about Ellen Page. From the arresting opening in which Page threatens a Big Oil CEO, over horror imagery of oil seeping out of his mansion’s air-vents and sinks, she is extremely menacing. And this despite one shot where director Zal Batmanglij hilariously forgets to hide the massive height difference between the tiny Canadian (5’1”) and the mighty Scandinavian (6’6”). Marling is a better writer than actress and she and co-writer Batmanglij skilfully portray the group as dangerous lunatics akin to Martha Marcy May Marlene’s cult before deepening the portrayal. This is exemplified by the devastating drip-feed of information about Doc (Tony Kebbell), but Page benefits greatly as the forceful Izzy is so enigmatic as to appear without moral limits, but is actually almost mythological in her convictions.
There is an awful lot of Tyler Durden in Skarsgard’s Benji, who proves his devotion to the maxim “the things you own end up owning you” by squatting in a decayed mansion. Batmanglij eschews the visual bravura Fincher brought to Fight Club because despite initial similarities to the work of its Mischief Committee the jams here lack that joyousness. Durden was unburdened by self-doubt, but these characters, despite the Big Pharma jam having the elegance of an Emily gambit in Revenge, do not take her joy in retribution but are troubled by their actions against Paige Williams (Julia Ormond) and the other directors. This doesn’t convince and never feels like anything but a sop to PG-13 morality. It weighs down a third act being almost fatally dragged under by a flight of characters, infuriating politico-economic naivety, and an unnecessary twist.
The East’s third act doesn’t do the rest of the film justice, but this is an absorbing thriller whose slow-burning character studies are a welcome relief in blockbuster season.