A film review by Craig J. Koban August 15, 2013
2013, PG-13, 116 mins.
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.
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).
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.
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
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
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
I also liked Skarsgard’s de facto East leader, who – like
Marling – is not a flamboyant or obtrusive camera-mugging screen
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
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
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.