by Ian Bell, published on Thursday, June 27, 2013 |
Let no one say environmental thrillers need be as dull and chewy as a tofu sandwich. In the right hands, subjects such as water supplies (Chinatown), energy (Silkwood) and big oil (Syriana) can lead to some highly entertaining screen spills and chills. As in any movie, the stars, writers, directors and, in this case, the producers, can make all the difference.
The latter alone could be enough to persuade cinema-goers to take a punt on Zal Batmanglij's thriller, The East. Ridley Scott and his late brother Tony, between them responsible for more excitement in the cinema than Bruce Willis, George Clooney and the arrival of the first Ben and Jerry franchise combined, are among the producers here.
There is another name in the producer list worth noting Brit Marling, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Batmanglij and appears in the movie, is a young actress whose star has been on the rise in the films Another Earth and Arbitrage, and is just about to light up the sky. Added to this, there is a certain topicality to Batmanglij's slick thriller about an undercover agent infiltrating a green group.
Taken together, these factors are enough to ride out the bumps in the story and make the lurches into the improbable easier to take. The East is no Chinatown, but that's no reason to forget its existence when it comes to choosing what to see at the cinema this weekend.
Marling plays Sarah, a young woman on the up with a private security company led by Patricia Clarkson (Shutter Island, Easy A). The firm's business is to keep its clients out of the news by heading off trouble before it comes calling.
Courtesy of a shadowy cadre of radical environmentalists called The East, trouble has been visiting a lot lately. Handing Marling a pair of Birkenstocks as a joke women and their ability to communicate via shoes, eh? she sends the agent out to go deep, deep undercover. To deal with The East, however, Sarah first has to find them.
Batmanglij (Sound Of My Voice, also with Marling) handles this early section with verve and confidence, making it seem plausible that Sarah could indeed find this needle-in-an-internet-haystack group via the simple methods of partying on beaches and riding the railroads with other free spirits. Even when she does secure an introduction, the group, which includes Ellen Page's fiery Izzy and Alexander Skarsgard as Benji, the group's icily calculating leader, she is under scrutiny and treated with the utmost suspicion. Though the audience instinctively knows Sarah will succeed in joining the group there wouldn't be much of a movie if she gave up and went home to her boyfriend after half an hour Batmanglij manages to keep the tension wire tight.
The East are after some big targets in western capitalism, be they drug companies that expose developing nations to risky products, or chemical companies polluting local water supplies. They pride themselves that however giant the target might be, they, the plucky Davids, can get to them through a mixture of planning, cunning and nerve.
And a good internet connection, of course. Long gone are the days when plotters had to hide in a loft with a gun to cause mayhem, or agents acted as sleepers, hiding for years, desperate to remain undiscovered. Today, being an effective radical is all about pulling the big stunt and uploading the film onto the internet, the better for a global audience to hear about it and think you are cool. Robin Hood has gone digital.
Though they may be anarchist types, The East have an intricate plan to pull off three big gigs. This is one too many to keep the thriller rattling along as it should. Batmanglij spends so much time on the early stunts that by the time the final act comes along exhaustion has set in.
Of more concern is the way the story becomes increasingly far-fetched as it goes on. Having expended so much effort early on establishing the credibility of the plot and making the character of Sarah believable, things become baggier, and less believable, the longer the film goes on.
Marling makes a terrific heroine, as credible as a sharp-suited, high-heeled corporate type as she is a shaggy-haired radical slumming it in a squat. Page, her performance in Christopher Nolan's Inception aside, hasn't travelled too far from her Juno days; in appearance and attitude, she can still nail the part of young and idealistic. Here, there is an added sharpness to her as the troublemaker with a troubled past.
Rivaling Marling for screen cool is Skarsgard. Son of Skellan, star of Melancholia and Battleship, and soon to be Tarzan, Skarsgard, like Marling, is key to the thriller's credibility. With his buttoned-down, slow-burn acting style he convinces as a man who has had to live most of his adult life in the shadows.
Between them, and some nifty direction from Batmanglij, the picture zips along, alternating between contemplative stretches and good old-fashioned action sequences. On the latter front, and in the slickness of the piece, you can see the influence of both Scott brothers at work.
Eating your green politics is exciting again.
Rating: 3 out of 5