Film Review: The East

Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij team up again with a more star studded cast than their excellent first collaboration, Sound of My Voice, but third act issues keep it from reaching the quality of that film.

The concept behind the film is an intriguing one, a christian/republican young woman, Sarah, leaves her boyfriend to go undercover in an eco-terrorist group, called The East. Her mission is to subvert its intentions for the benefit of her employer, a private defense firm, but as she spends more and more time with the group the lines begin to blur for Sarah and she might never be able to readjust back to her original life.

The film’s plotting and structure is rather simple as Sarah is pulled into the group and we go along with her on these “jams” against these major corporations who have destroyed the environment and peoples’ lives yet go on completely unpunished. The group’s original efforts start small (pouring oil in an executives house), but when they start putting lives at risk, Sarah doesn’t know who to trust. Watching Sarah buy into the cause is compelling, but it is even more so when she realizes there is no longer a ‘good guy’ in her life to turn to. Sure, the corporations The East targets are doing terrible things and they deserved to be punished, but is threatening the lives of these people the most ideal way to do this? On the other hand, her superiors at her employer are doing nothing of the sort to stop these ecological atrocities (in fact they are protecting them) and they wouldn’t lift a finger to save anyone unless it was or benefited its clients.

Sadly, I don’t know if the film really wrestles with this dilemma for Sarah nearly enough. What she is exactly doing for her company is never really clear or seems to bring about a whole lot, nor does it get into the duality of her life in any engaging way other than showing us that the one she used to know is slowly slipping away from her. I mean a good undercover agent doesn’t let their personal feelings get in the way, but the examples they show of her East life bleeding through are not significant in the slightest. Marling is a compelling actor and she makes the most of it, but I feel like the writing she and Batmanglij wrote didn’t give Sarah enough depth for her to play with. Giving the film’s central drama over to a half baked romance doesn’t help things either. This weak romance is a contributing factor in the weak third act, but it flounders mostly due to its inability to raise tension or have many clear motives. Alexander Skarsgård’s Benji makes some odd decisions at the end of the film and they aren’t remotely smart or interesting. Plus, the film’s final photographic montage should have been played out into the film in some capacity. Sarah’s fate is way too interesting to be told in a series of pictures and newspaper clippings.

This is a shame because the middle of this film really gets on a roll and is a strong reminder why this creative duo is one of the top up and comers in film. As weak as the writing is in the final act, the stuff that precedes it pulls you in and does a great job of challenging your allegiance to their cause; even if you are a lefty. Ellen Page and Tony Kebbell both get to play a pair of excellent characters and their talents really help lift the film above the average cast below its movie stars. Skarsgård is also a strong presence and leader of The East, it’s just a shame that the romance with the also very good Marling was under developed. There are also more than a few great, nail biting scenes throughout the picture and are more than worth your price of admission; these moments only make the shortcoming of the final act hurt that much more. Page in particular gets a great story arc to work with, so does Kebbell, and the film works best when it gets personal for the members of The East.

The East is a good thriller from a pair of potentially great filmmakers that just miss the mark here. The cast is great at the top, giving the leads some fresh characters against type, it’s just a shame the story couldn’t carry through on its strengths all the way till the end. Batmanglij is a director to watch though, his eye has not dulled at all in his second effort, and I suspect he and Marling are bound to give us a masterpiece at some point down the line. Still, support them now, The East is better than a lot of the big time fare playing at the theater this weekend.

The East is a B

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