'The East' (2013) Movie Review

The East movie review
Alexander Skarsgaard and Brit Marling in The East
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

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
Grade: B-

The East"The East" is a Fox Searchlight Pictures release, directed by Zal Batmanglij and is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, violence, some disturbing images, sexual content and partial nudity. The running time is .

The cast includes Alexander Skarsgard, Ellen Page, Toby Kebbell, Julia Ormond, Patricia Clarkson, Shiloh Fernandez, Brit Marling, Billy Magnussen and Aldis Hodge.

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.


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  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Hudsucker/ Hudsucker

    Hmm... they got 2 B-'s in a row.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/navaneethks/ navaneethks

    No dumpster diving here

  • http://www.digitalkebab.com Shaun Heenan

    I'll be seeing this in a couple of days at the Sydney Film Festival. I really enjoyed Sound of My Voice, so I think I'll like this one, too.

  • http://www.smartfilm.blogspot.com SmartFilm

    I gave it a B- as well when I saw it.

    REVIEW - http://www.smartfilm.blogspot.com/#!http://smartfilm.blogspot.com/2013/05/siff-review-east.html

    The East is neither the first movie about an undercover mole infiltrating an enemy organization, learning the universal worth of their dogma and falling for their leader nor will it be the last. Nonetheless, it's commendable for its throbbing sense of stakes even in light of the searing self-righteous aplomb beating you over the head at every turn.

    However young and fragile she may seem, Sarah (Brit Marling) is a daring security firm agent intent on going deep-cover with an eco-terrorist organization known only as The East whose retaliatory exploits against corporate CEOs have been heavily featured in the media. Cloaked in ragged hipster gear, strapped into Birkenstocks but still smelling of soap, Sarah tries to earn credibility within the rungs of the alternative ragamuffins she's taken up camp with.

    Eventually, she winds up playing wingman to a rare East member and, after slashing herself with a can of coke, is taken to The East's headquarters to witness their unconventional ways and seemingly violent credo. She immediately forms a bond with their passive but firm leader Benji, played by Alexander Skarsgård (True Blood). To the members of The East, the acts they commit are not terrorism so much as a lesson. They live by the tenants of Hammurabi's Code: an eye for an eye.

    Those who dump oil into the ocean will have oil dumped into their homes. Those who intentionally distribute prescription drugs with devastating side effects will be force-fed those same drugs. Those who operate plants that knowingly poison the local water supply will be forced to bathe in that water. It's a harsh comeuppance but the organization sees it as a necessary evil to get the world back on track. Toby Kebbell stands out from amongst the cast and acts as the emotional fulcrum, particularly when he recounts the story of his sister's passing at the hands of an irresponsible pharmaceutical corporation. In time, Sarah begins to see the world through their eyes and is torn between the responsibilities of her past life and her newfound kinship with The East.

    As individual elements, the characters work great but there's a flatness between the two leads that you can't quite put your finger on. Skarsgård is captivating and Marling manages to juggle the duality of her character with ease but their chemistry feels a little forced. Rather than an organic connection, this supposedly unexpected relationship was exactly the opposite. It felt like a fore-drawn conclusion created within a script rather than a natural character progression.

    Somewhere between the center and the outskirts of the story is Ellen Page (Inception, Juno) whose role was an undeniable letdown. Her character plays the nonsensical narrative scapegoat with her alliances and motivations shifting on a dime. Chop her into two and she wouldn't be this lumped together, confused amalgamation.

    However nonchalantly you interpret the corporate threat to our world lingering within the film, the brazen political positioning is sure to make you feel something, forcing you to shimmy to one side or the other depending on the presumptions you enter the theater with and your willingness to engage with the material presented.

    As such, The East is an interactive experience demanding viewers to take a stance and wrestle with it throughout. But buried in all this palpable, self-serious introspection, there is a fun spy thriller that breathes life, stakes and momentum into the piece allowing it to be more than just a downtrodden and pedantic procedural.

    The jury is out as to whether this thinly masked political subterfuge will be effective as catalyzing filmmaking but you have to respect Zal Batmanglij for trying. Too often, movies don't bother with a message or their agenda is too broadly painted to be definitively interpretable and thus meaningful. Batmanglij though broadcasts his eco-friendly stance here even more so than James Cameron with Avatar. Lobbing stink bombs at corporations may seem like a fruitless undertaking, especially under the auspices of Fox Searchlight, but at least Batmanglij is taking a step in the right direction.

    As a thriller, The East has an extraordinary first and second act but is jarringly interrupted and the hard-earned edge-of-your-seat involvement spills over like a glass of milk. As a lesson in morality and escalation, the lines seem a little more blurred. This is clearly wishful thinking. As the film builds to climaxes of shifty moral ambiguities, its self-serious nature takes precedence over the sheer uninhibited fun set lose in the thriller components and limits it from reaching heights within its grasp.


  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/AS/ AS

    Been looking forward to this one for a while.

  • http://couchpotatodigest.blogspot.com Matt

    Really excited for this. I really liked "Sound of My Voice" and loved the teaser trailer for this. Brit Marling has an almost hypnotic screen presence. Hoping this comes to a theater near me.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Adrianocrowbar/ Adriano

    THe only film with Brit Marling I've seen so far is "Another Earth". It's so good that it made me a fan. I'm really curious about this one, and "Sound of my Voice".

  • http://www.criterion.com/my_criterion/27913-criterion10 Criterion10

    I saw Brit Marling on Bill Maher the other night. She seemed like a very interesting person. May check this out once it hits DVD.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Risa/ Risalat Rahman

    Wow, there are people who, actually, liked Sound of My Voice? Pretentious nothing was what that film aspired to be and succeeded. The East, on the other hand, is well put together story-wise. I mean, the storytelling is more coherent but the direction has nothing special to offer. But I'm forever impressed with Marling. She needs to be involved in better projects, by which I mean 'a lot better'.