2013 - 116 minutes
Directed by: Zal Batmanglij
Written by: Zal Batmanglij, Brit Marling
Starring: Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgård, Ellen Page, Toby Kebbell,
Shiloh Fernandez, Aldis Hodge, Patricia Clarkson
For a film pitting the corporate machine against an idealistic domestic terrorism cell, The East is lacking in political pep. A work that presents moral injustice and the responses to it should force us to examine our own ethics, but this film feels detached and never cuts deep enough to get under the skin. It also doesn’t help that The East squarely sides with the ragtag bunch rather than the buttoned-up for a majority of the runtime, but completely cops out in the end.
Brit Marling plays Sarah, a newly minted undercover operative at the deviously named Hiller-Brood – a private intelligence firm that sounds more like a gang of predatory vampires (probably not by mistake). Her job is to infiltrate the underground activist group known as The East and report on their operations to protect the deep-pocketed Hiller-Brood clients.
After being drawn into the group in fairly rapid (and unbelievable) order, Sarah faces the challenge of remaining staunch in her charge while being indoctrinated by The East’s chiseled leader (Alexander Skarsgård) and his fiery lieutenant (Ellen Page). The movie is a little wishy-washy with this conundrum, giving Sarah a mild case of Stockholm Syndrome. She forms meaningful connections with the scruffy members of The East and their aims but still dutifully reports back to Hiller-Brood and her icy boss (Patricia Clarkson).
Marling, who co-wrote the script with director Zal Batmanglij, is a portrait in measured pensiveness as Sarah, but her reflective gazes never give us an “in” to understand her motivations. I never felt or bought an inner conflict between her professional and home life with her draw to The East. He calm and always in control demeanor erodes the feeling of high stakes. A drab, flat look only works to further dull the film’s edge.
The East really starts to head south in the final act, rushing to an unsatisfying resolution straight from a disposable paperback thriller. Any ounce of promise contained with personal connections between The East members and their targets dissolves into a forced narrative coiling. The endgame involves accessing intelligence information for cloudy reasons and there’s even drama built around a microchip (or better, a memory card). Unfortunately, we aren’t left with a questioning of whether the ends justify the means, only disappointment that the end of The East doesn’t validate what had come before.