The biggest challenge in The East — and the question that attentive audience members will ask from the first reel — is how it will thread a moral needle.
The 400-Word Review: The East
By Sean Collier
July 15, 2013
Starring, co-written and co-produced by Brit Marling, The East follows corporate intelligence operative Sarah Moss as she infiltrates a clandestine ecoterrorism group led by slightly Manson-ish Benji (Alexander Skarsgård).
The next act is what you’d expect: As Sarah gets more and more cozy with the activists, she starts to come around to their viewpoint. Since she’s in deep cover, we get the who’s-side-is-she-on struggle from The Departed; as she drifts in and out of her alter ego, close calls on both sides lend thriller elements.
That question, then (and I won’t answer it here): can The East manage to resist the obvious story? In versions of this tale that range from big-budget kiddie movies to fiercely alternative cult cinema, the protagonist sees the world through the eyes of her enemies and converts. The East struggles to be more complex than that; it’s certainly not advocating for the shadowy multinational corporations Sarah works for, but it retains some skepticism at the extremely alternative lifestyles led by the environmentalists, as well.
Slickly (if derivatively) directed by Marling’s frequent collaborator Zal Batmanglij (who shares the writing credit), The East makes fine use of a formula and rises on the backs of its three key performances. Marling is relatable and wears conflict on her face in every frame; the story may not be particularly original, but Sarah is a wholly unique, and refreshing, protagonist. Skarsgård’s performance is a slightly lesser version of John Hawkes’ character in Martha Marcy May Marlene, which is a perfectly acceptable source to ape. As a fiery activist, Ellen Page provides a nice counterpoint.
With a political topic this stark, The East can’t help but turn into a message movie. In some ways, its characterizations are made too black-and-white; reducing some of its antagonists to pure evil may make it too easy for the audience to miss the bigger message. Some of its secondary points about consumerism and the “freegan” culture are too muddy to truly land.
If it’s possible to separate The East from its message, though, it’s an enjoyable and compelling drama in its own right — and a great showcase for Marling, an underrated artist. I’m not sure it’s important cinema, but it’s definitely a very good movie.
Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at pittsburghmagazine.com/afterdark