An anarchist group referring to themselves as The East has just performed their first act of terrorism by flooding the Hampton home of an oil company exec with the very crude his company spilled into the ocean, destroying the wildlife and environment without consequence. Their identities and whereabouts are unknown as is their next target.
Sarah Moss (Brit Marling) works for a private investigative firm and she’s been assigned to track down and infiltrate this group, and learn what she can so as to prevent such attacks and negative exposure from occurring to the firm’s corporate clientele. The battle lines are clear, but the grey area between right and wrong remains daunting.
The East takes a good hard look at the idea of right and wrong and through Sarah we’re presented with point/counterpoint and asked “What would you do?” and then all that’s left is to ask, “But will you actually do it?”
Co-written by Marling and director Zal Batmanglij, The East is structured very much in the same way as the duo’s 2012 feature Sound of My Voice centered on a Los Angeles couple attempting to infiltrate a cult and expose its leader as a fraud. That film asked “What do you believe?” and in many ways this one, beyond the narrative similarities, leans on similar tropes — the question of will she be found out, how far is she willing to go and at what point have you gone too far to the point you relinquish your core values and the line between right and wrong becomes increasingly blurry.
If a pharmaceutical company is willing to sell a product known to have side effects that could lead to brain deterioration or even death, would it be taking things too far if you were to spike the drinks of that company’s executives with the very drug they pretend is safe? What is within the boundaries of justified? Is it enough to expose a company for its misdeeds or must more drastic measures be taken to make sure people are paying attention?
Through its narrative The East asks these questions, occasionally bluntly, but more often than not simply as a product of its own story. The strength here is in the topic Marling and Batmanglij have chosen to focus on, bringing to light a real world issue while at the same time turning it into a real world thriller.
The narrative The East follows is relatively predictable as I was able to see a lot of the plot bends before they came to light, however that doesn’t necessarily detract from the film’s overall effect. The subject is fascinating enough, and the performances also enhance the overall appeal.
I like Marling’s work, though I’ve never seen her breakout feature Another Earth. Her work here and in films such as Arbitrage and Sound of My Voice continually present a confident actor that can do both quiet and strong equally well.
The supporting cast is otherwise loaded with familiar names from Alexander Skarsgaard (“True Blood”) as the leader of the titular anarchist group which includes actors such as Ellen Page (whose strong-willed character is familiar to her filmography though a powerful character nevertheless), Toby Kebbell and Shiloh Fernandez, as well as Julia Ormond and Patricia Clarkson on the corporate side of things.
The East presents a nasty circular pattern of damage where there are no winners or losers. A person’s ethics and morals can only get them so far in this world, especially if your goal is to teach society your definition of right and wrong and the film smartly realizes this as do the characters.
However, the smartest thing Marling and Batmanglij did was to focus on issues in this world that are more universally despised. Think of how many drug commercials you’ve seen where more than half of the 30-second spot is spent warning you of possible side effects. Think of how you feel when you see oil-soaked birds and marine life following an oil spill and instead of focusing on slaughter house practices and the treatment of chickens, they simply focus on the amount of food America wastes.
The East is a well-crafted thriller that has a few issues here and there, largely with pacing as the 116 minute running time isn’t really necessary, but overall it’s a film that makes you think and offers some thrills as well. I’m now curious to learn what group Marling and Batmanglij will be infiltrating with their next film to complete the trilogy.