Sarah (Brit Marling), an operative for an exclusive private security firm, lands her first undercover job; infiltrating The East, a group of eco-warriors and anarchists whose targets are high profile corporations. Once she is accepted into the group, however, she realises that the company she works for may not be protecting the right people.
Can Brit Marling actually do any wrong? She first came to prominence in Another Earth, a film that she wrote and starred in, which examined the consequences of a violent event and the idea of running away from our problems. As well as this, Marling has shown she has comedy chops with a guest slot on Community and was praised for her performance in Arbitrage, earlier this year. The East is Marling’s second collaboration with director Zal Batmanglij after The Sound of My Voice, which was highly praised.
The East is the story of a woman who believes that she is doing the right thing. Brit Marling, as Sarah, is assured in her actions, almost to the point of arrogance, until she starts to empathise with the people she has been employed to bring down. Marling has a tendency to underplay the roles she takes on, but this actually works in the film’s favour; the audience constantly questions Sarah’s motives, and as she becomes more uncertain, so do we. That said, this is the kind of role that Marling excels at, so it is not surprising that she does well here.
As Benji, leader of The East, Alexander Skarsgard shows that he has a gentler, less flashy side than we have come to know of him from True Blood. His gaze on Marling is electric, and like Marling, he underplays the entire situation. As Izzie, Ellen Page perhaps gets the worst deal of the central trio; her character flip flops back and forth about her feelings toward Sarah, and then is revealed to simply be a poor little rich girl who is angry with her father. There is no doubt that she manages the role well, but Izzie is the personification of everything that is wrong with the film.
The East, as an activist group, target wealthy corporations who have done ‘the people’ wrong, and there is a strong message from Doc, Toby Kebbel’s character, about the lack of caring shown by drug companies, but it seems rather easy for the team to infiltrate and attack the people they are targeting; the drug company is run by a friend of one of the group’s father, the chemical company is run by Izzie’s father, which leaves the film feeling less like one about political activism, and more about first world problems and emotionally stunted adults who are still mad at their parents over some slight in their teenage years. As writers, Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling could have benefited from giving each character a motivation as strong as Doc’s and a little more focus. That said, the film is well paced, beautifully shot and, for the most part, gripping.
In all, The East is an interesting look at the balance between corporations and activism, which at times, ends up looking at the balance between parental love and career, career and the fleeting fascination of sex. There are some strong performances within the film, and it is well paced and gripping. Marling has proven, again, that she has a flair for writing and performance, although a little less preoccupation with the consequences of our actions could help her evolve.