Synopsis: An operative for an elite private intelligence firm finds her priorities changing dramatically after she is tasked with infiltrating an anarchist group known for executing covert attacks upon major corporations. (Source)
The East reunites director Zal Batmanglij with writer/actress Brit Marling to again take us into the hidden, underground community of a “cult”, it’s social strata and complicated relationships/perceptions with the world around them. Unlike their previous effort, Sound of My Voice, the pair this time chooses a very pointed stance, turning what could’ve been morally ambiguous tale into a refreshingly optimistic message. Through the film’s methods are admittedly a bit implausible and generic, its heart is no doubt in the right place with an essence that mirrors its message in an admirable way. There’s also no denying Batmanglij’s skill at bringing out emotion and tension in potent doses especially when they matter most.
The story centers around a former FBI agent named Sarah Moss (Brit Marling) and her new recruitment into a private intelligence firm named Hiller Brood. Her mission is to find and infiltrate an elusive anarchist collective named the East, who is targeting the heads of major corporations to lethal effect. When she eventually catches up to her target, she finds her allegiances challenged and the ruthless methods of both her employer and her prey questionable, leading her to choose between her personal integrity and a shady world of dog eat dog. As she begins to form a familial bond with those she’s sent to spy on, Sarah’s attachment to her “real” life of luxury begins to fade and she’s forced to rethink the way she views the world around her.
What makes the film commendable is the ability to attack its subject matter from all sides, coming to a humane solution that may be naive to most, yet ultimately an honest stance worth striving for. Weaving it’s message through a complex eco-thriller about the blind eyes turned to satiate greedy capitalism, the film finds it’s focus by powerfully juxtaposing rich, corporate greed and its lesser fortunate human collateral damage. The film also isn’t afraid to ask difficult questions or to convict it’s audience, but it does so in a way that doesn’t feel self righteous or heated. And though it may make us empathize with the violent acts of it’s antagonists it never condones them. Realistically, there’s no easy, straightforward or quick fix to the film’s corporate-sized problems, but what the story does is offer a wake up call that’s sincere and a peaceful middle ground that idealizes the best that human kind has to offer. Even if its not a truly possible solution, you have to admire the way the filmmakers have used their art as a cathartic and poignant weapon. Crystalizing the responsibility that we have not only to our environment but as a human race, the film is a reflection for us to be grateful of the things we have and be vigilant of their cost.
The downside of the film is that regardless of it’s potent message and ability to keep you entertained, it’s characters feel almost like caricatures of who they can be despite some charismatic performances. As Sarah, Brit Marling begins as a strong and confident woman. As soon as she infiltrates the group however, she’s swayed a bit too easily and is relegated to a generic Hollywood template. As for the East, Toby Kebbell’s Doc, Ellen Page’s Izzy and Alexander Skarsgard’s leader Benji fare much better, with fascinating personal motivations that position the group as a conflicted, yet empathetic rebellion to their surroundings. We get the sense that each of them has tasted the spoils of wealth and are on some sort of search for penance. It’s an interesting take, especially since the film doesn’t condone their criminal acts but instead confronts it with understanding. Still, most of the characters feel more like rough outlines, conveying great ideas more than real people.
At the very least, The East offers plenty of relevant ideas to think about and delivers them in a thriller that for the most part, manages to take us outside of our contort zones. Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling are masters at hooking us in quickly and keeping our interest satiated while also showing that they have plenty to say. While it may be too preachy for some, I can easily admire the film’s bravery and believe that it’s got a message that’s worth being told. It even dares to give us a possible solution for all of the difficult themes it presents us, smartly using itself as a call to action, acting as the beginning of a story rather than the end of it. In that sense, it feels like the start of a great conversation that needs to be had.
Crome Rating: 3.5/5