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Review: ‘The East’ Lacks Direction

Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgard, and Ellen Page in 'The East'
Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgard, and Ellen Page in ‘The East’
The message is potent, but the delivery is muddled.

In brief, Sarah (Brit Marling) is a corporate spy whose latest mission requires her to infiltrate an eco-terrorist group led by Benji (Alexander Skarsgård). The group, known as “The East,” is bent on punishing large corporations that have knowingly unleashed widespread harm upon the public, whether by selling pharmaeutical drugs or damaging the environment. The idea is, ‘Because of you, innocent people have suffered greatly or even died; it’s time for you to suffer as they have.’

That in itself is a powerful, chilling issue worthy of thoughtful debate. How is the balance between risk / reward determined? Shouldn’t corporations accept responsibility for their actions? Is violent retaliation justiable from a moral standpoint? Does such violence ever result in truly better conditions? Is it better to work within the system or stand outside and call attention to iniquities?

The film, directed by Zal Batmanglij and written by Marling and Batmanglij, is structured around three attacks planned by The East. Sarah, a former FBI agent, is briefed by her boss Sharon (Patricia Clarkson); her mission is to gain intelligence about the group, so that the private security company can be in a better position to protect their existing clients and acquire new ones. Already we’re in murky moral waters, and unresolved questions quickly begin to pile up: Why did Sarah leave the FBI? Did she quit or was she fired? Does she have any personal feelings about the work she’s doing? Or is she only in it for the money?

Sarah then leaves behind her live-in boyfriend Tim (Jason Ritter) to go undercover, posing as a runaway from society, eventually and fortuitously gaining the notice of Doc (Toby Kebbell), who kindly and questionably takes her to the secret hideaway of The East to provide her with medical attention. The group far too quickly accepts her as one of their own, despite some questionable actions and the suspicions of firebrand Izzy (Ellen Page).

As things develop, the moral issues, already hazy, are left ill-defined, and are watered down further when the film’s focus shifts to hidebound personal motivations. Sarah is attracted to Benji and drifts away from her boyfriend for no clear reason, other than the idea that Benji is a hunk; Benji’s true motives lie in his past; Izzy’s true motives lie in her past; Doc’s true motives lie in his past; and so forth. The group’s facade of idealism is ripped away; the argument seems to be that these are unhappy, bitter people who are taking revenge upon big corporations purely for personal reasons. In other words, to incorrectly paraphrase Mr. Spock, the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many.

It’s almost as though The East were arguing in favor of the major corporations, which seems twisted indeed.

In true thriller style, everything gets wrapped up neatly with someone dying and a chase or two, which ends things seemingly on a positive note, as long as no deep thought is given to what actually transpired. That’s weak sauce for a strong premise.

The East is now playing at the Angelika Film Center in Dallas and Cinemark West Plano.