Title: The East
Genre(s): Action, Drama, Mystery
Director(s): Zal Batmanglij
Release Year: 2013
There were many times in The East where I became curious as to what side the main character, Sarah (Brit Marling), was on. Ultimately that is the crux of this film. Sarah begins as a morally ambiguous character who is shaped by what she experiences throughout her stint with an eco-terrorist group known only as “The East”. Everything else that happens in the film falls under the categories of predictable, brash, and pretentious. There’s a message in The East and it’s conveyed with ease, but what ends up being the lasting effect of the film is its ability to portray a character who walks the line between good and evil.
The main plot of The East is stretched to a fairly lengthy runtime of two hours, and it becomes painfully noticeable because of how run-of-the-mill everything feels. “The East” is an organization that could be compared to the environmental version of “Anonymous”, and Sarah is an undercover agent attempting to find out who “The East” is, and what their next attacks will be. These attacks generally constitute giving corporations a taste of their own medicine; an ‘eye for an eye’, if you will. The moral dilemma begins when Sarah wrestles with whether this “terrorist” organization is truly comprised of terrorists. This explains why there are a handful of attacks of which we watch Sarah join “The East” and the question becomes whether these attacks are justified, or overblown acts of vengeance. By having these “jams”, as they’re referred to in the film, the movie is able to flesh out Sarah’s character in between each one, as well as provide some tense thriller aspects when the actual “jams” occur.
All that being said, the journey Sarah goes on is not without its cliches. “The East” is comprised of a cast of misfits, all of whom seem to have been wronged in some way by a corporation and in this way their actions become more personally-charged. This acts as another means of putting the viewer in the same place as Sarah, begging all the same questions until you’re out of a state of comfort and into the mindset of wanting to check the side effects to everything you own. The reason I say that The East has plenty of cliches is because the cast of characters that Sarah is intermingling with range from hippy to doctor hippy to hacker hippy to black hippy and so on. There’s depth to the main actors of the film, but everyone else in “The East” is fairly shallow, leaving more and more room for Ellen Page, Toby Kebbell, and Alexander Skarsgard to try and give you more reason to care about these characters.
Ultimately, The East works because of Brit Marling and her character – not so much the plot. The problems with the narrative are not horrendous, and in fact, there is a lot within it to enjoy. There are plenty of complexities that surface by the end of the movie which amount to some interesting questions for the audience to tackle, but as a straight-forward mystery film, there’s not much new here beyond that moral ambiguity. The film ends at a conclusion that is far from surprising, but that is also a testament to the writing of the film by Marling and director Zal Batmanglij, who are able to tie up loose ends and make a believable character arc for Sarah. Complimented by Roman Vasyanov’s ethereal cinematography (that is a welcome change of pace from his gritty photography in End of Watch) and a beautiful score by Halli Cauthery (as well as a perfect theme by Harry Gregson-Williams to go with it), and every emotion is able to be felt in vivid detail.
The East will probably be forgotten by me at some point, due to its generic and heavy-handed plots and themes, but it is worth having seen. The performances by all the actors are great, including Patricia Clarkson who plays Sarah’s stern, corporate boss. The film’s runtime feels forced, and there were many instances when I wished scenes happened just a little bit quicker. In the end though, The East is all about what is right and what is wrong, and how what may seem right, may very well be wrong. That is what carries this film above the other espionage dramas out there: you can never truly know what is right and wrong all the time, and watching Sarah grapple each situation is almost always an interesting exercise.