The East is immaculately made with a thought-provoking emphasis on corporate espionage, but for all the polish of director/co-writer Zal Batmanglij’s film, it’s just missing intensity and grit.
An operative for a private intelligence firm, Sarah (Brit Marling who also co-wrote the screenplay), is tasked with infiltrating a group of anarchists called The East who target major corporations for their crimes which have gone unpunished.
First and foremost, The East is a dinner party conversation starter with the central plot focusing on the moral quandary of ‘an eye for an eye’. The East use extreme methods to expose the ugly truth and are like a vindictive version of Greenpeace crossed with Wikileaks. The intention is pure but the methods are questionable, and Batmanglij does a great job of crafting a series of missions known as ‘jams’ that require Sarah’s participation without blowing her cover. Batmanglij maintains an anxious mood throughout as Sarah’s covert status is always one conversation or action away from unfurling. Emotions fray as each member of the group reveals their personal quest for vengeance against the big companies and it muddies Sarah’s mission. As passion overwhelms different members of the team, Batmanglij and Marling’s script brings the purpose of The East into question as they are blinded by retribution and begin to share traits with the billion dollar conglomerates they are endeavouring to thrash.
The moral battleground in The East is fierce but the film never raises the stakes enough to elevate the tension. I felt like my heart was asking my brain, “Shouldn’t we be pumping into overdrive by now?” The material certainly warrants it. There are significant revelations but they have zero impact as the story dawdles over a few obstacles and lethargically flop over little hurdles on track to the finale. Romantic engagements are presented but don’t’ effectively aid the plot and Sarah’s faith in religion is presented but never properly used as an ethical compass to give the character depth.
The ensemble is good and the core group of extremists played by Ellen Page, Toby Kebbell and Alexander Skarsgard all manage to bring humanity to the cause without drifting into the territory of unhinged cult members. As the head of the intelligence firm, Patricia Clarkson has her eyes on the financial gains she’ll reap from the situation and the actress radiates greed and authority. Marling has yet to show much diversity in her performances and is working with the same range of emotions in The East as seen already in The Sound of My Voice, Another Earth and Arbitrage. The softly spoken and composed demeanour Marling imbues each character she plays is starting to become a drag and it would be enticing to see her expand her range as an actor.
The East pleasantly drifts through moral grey areas when it should be wading through the grime of spy verses spy.
Cameron Williams - follow Cam on Twitter here: @popcornjunkies