A film review by Craig J. Koban August 15, 2013

THE EAST jjj
 

2013, PG-13, 116 mins.

 

Ellen Page as Izzy  /  Alexander Skarsgård as Benji  /  Brit Marling as Sarah  /  Patricia Clarkson as Sharon  /  Toby Kebbell as Doc  /  Shiloh Fernandez as Luca  /  Julia Ormond as Paige

Directed by Zal Batmanglij  /  Written by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij

THE EAST is one of those refreshingly involving and suspenseful political thrillers that only seemed to made in abundance in the 1970’s.  Paranoia potboilers like THE PARALLAX VIEW come instantly to mind, not to mention a host of others too numerous to list that honed in on provocative and timely issues as well as the finer aspects of characters and story, which far too many modern action-oriented thrillers forget about.  This film ostensibly takes an anti-corporation, eco-terrorism angle that further tells a story of how the noblest of intentions for a cause can sometimes be warped into fanatical obsession.  THE EAST, as a result of this, is more spin tingling, unnerving, and chillingly effective than most other similar genre efforts. 

The overall narrative is kind of ingenious, co-written by the film’s star, the naturally beautiful and talented Brit Marling, who also co-wrote and appeared in the quietly masterful AFTER EARTH.  Marling plays Sarah, a field agent with something to prove that works for a private and very powerful D.C. intelligence firm that specializes in tracking down and apprehending a variety of criminals that makes the lives of their clients very distressful.  Even though Sarah is a devout Christian and upstanding young woman, she nonetheless has to keep her personal and work lives separate, which makes her relationship with her live-in boyfriend (a decent Jason Ritter, albeit in an underwritten role) quite dicey (she frequently has to lie to him as to the particulars of her real assignments for the firm).

On one fateful day Sarah is recruited by her hard, stern, and no-nonsense boss (played with an ice cold emotionally detachment by the superb Patricia Clarkson) to infiltrate an eco-terrorism cell known as “The East,” which specializes in targeting fat-cat petroleum executives that cause unpardonable ecological sins at the expense of making themselves that much richer by the day…and all while never getting caught or doing any prison time.  Sarah and her handler’s plan is daring: Sarah will become one with the East, slowly gaining their collective trust and become a trusted member of the cell while, at the same time, continuing her clandestine mission to uncover all of their secrets, planned future acts of terrorism, and ultimately bring them down from the inside before they can strike again. 

 

 
The group is comprised of a motley crew of radical environmentalists that adhere to an any-means-necessary approach to getting the job done.  There is the fiery and intense Izzy (Ellen Page); the somewhat kind-hearted Luca (Shiloh Fernandez); the crew’s doctor (kind of) named, yup, Doc (Toby Kebell); the congenial minded (and hearing impaired) Eve (Hillary Baack); expert hacker Tess (Danielle MacDonald), and, last but not least, the hunky leader of the whole group, Benji (Alexander Skarsgard), who looks suspiciously like a homeless Jesus in his early scenes.  However, since Benji is indeed played by Skarsgard, you just know that he will inevitably clean up his look at some point in the film and, in turn, catch the lustful eye of Sarah. 

The most immersive scenes in THE EAST occur early on as Sarah begins to acclimatize herself within the cell, learning the ropes of their planned missions and becoming one with the team while never letting her guard – or cover - down.  Predictably, the more she entrenches herself within their ideology, the more difficult she finds it to disagree with them.  Granted, an early mission – the film’s most taut and well orchestrated moment of tension – has Sarah and her fellow East members at a garden fundraiser for a drug company that’s about to strike big with their new medicine, which has been secretly known to cause horrendous and irreversible side effects in test subjects.  The East infiltrates the party and quietly, without anyone noticing, injects the company’s own medication into the champagne, thus giving the company’s CEO and guests a little taste of their own dicey product.  The inherent suspense of hair-raising moments like this is in witnessing Sarah dealing with the moral conundrum of her situation: If she saves the guests her cover is blow, but if she doesn’t then many of the guests will die.  The way the film deals with the heavy emotional toll of Sarah’s innermost ethical struggles gives THE EAST a frighteningly riveting and unpredictable edge. 

Of course, the performances help in this regard as well.  I appreciate how unshowy Marling is as a performer.  She has a knack for inhabiting all of her scenes – even when they begin to strain modest credulity, more on that in a bit – with an understated poise, subtlety, and precision.  She’s an actress that does very little to suggest so many conflicting emotions.  I also liked Skarsgard’s de facto East leader, who – like Marling – is not a flamboyant or obtrusive camera-mugging screen presence.  He evokes in Benji a soft-spoken level of fanatical menace that works better than say, perhaps, overplaying him to hammy effect.  As an effective foil to him, Page plays her fervent Benji-acolyte with a remorseless and eerie resolve.  Perhaps one of the more compelling side characters and performances is from Toby Kebell as the group’s go-to-medic, who is a good man, per se, that suffers from Parkinson’s-like symptoms as a direct result of one company’s malfeasance.  He’s not an evil man; he actually seems to have legitimate motives for his cause. 

THE EAST begins to unravel, though, as it approaches its third act, during which Sarah becomes entombed in the culture and cause of the East and needs to finally decide whether or not to betray them to the authorities or stick with them.  Considering the psychological grit and complexity of the story leading towards this, the manner that Sarah’s character is dealt with by the time the film winds down to a conclusion is sort of unsatisfying and lacking plausibility.  Then there is, yes, the fully preordained romance in the story between Sarah and Benji, which seems more like a predictable distraction than anything else.  A more fruitfully compelling choice would have been to play up the sexual tension between the characters throughout without ever fully committing the pair to an intimate relationship.   

Still, THE EAST compensates for these deficiencies by being a reasonably engrossing, thoughtfully rendered, and exemplarily acted espionage thriller that never seems to overlook the human story of Sarah’s journey.  Marlin co-wrote the film with director Zal Batmanglij, who previously collaborated together on 2012’s SOUND OF MY VOICE, which concerned infiltrating a cult.  I like what I see from the pair in THE EAST and want to see more film collaborations between them in the future.  They both seem to instinctively understand that the finest thrillers are often the most intimately rendered and effectively balance the emotional anxieties of the characters with moments of suspenseful intrigue.   That, and Marling is a screen presence that feels instantly credible in just about every role she occupies, which makes the more obvious – and annoyingly implausible – plot elements of THE EAST that much more easily digestible. 

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