“The East” is your basic deep undercover cop thriller, but with a provocatively contemporary setup: In the lead role is Brit Marling, whose character isn’t actually a cop, but a private-sector spy named Sarah who’s been sent to infiltrate the mysterious “eco-terrorist” anarchist cell known as The East. Donning a pair of Birkenstocks and laying off the showers, Sarah starts living rough, dumpster diving with dropouts and reporting to her corporate superior, Sharon (Patricia Clarkson, in power suits for a change).
Director Zal Batmanglij (whose brother Rostam is in the band Vampire Weekend) is no stranger to cult territory — just see his first feature, “Sound of My Voice” — and “The East” starts off implying that Sarah is infiltrating such a cult, with a group of worshipful “freegan” true believers around the charismatic Manson-esque leader Benji (Alexander Skarsgard). But the longer she stays, the more she starts to understand their motivations and doubt those of her employer. Is it just Stockholm Syndrome, or something more?
Batmanglij has a good eye for depicting America’s post-Occupy crusty counterculture, and he fashions a decent thriller that — rather like last week’s “Mud” — just goes a little too over-the-top for last-reel dramatics, although with Ridley Scott on board as producer, it’s clear the director is aiming for indie-mainstream crossover.