THE EAST Review

Brit Marling is officially three for three in my book. After first seeing the actress and writer in director Mike Cahill's 2011 film Another Earth it was not necessarily her acting skill that was intriguing, but the way in which she gravitated towards projects. Yes, she was good at playing guarded and mysterious, but she was also able to invoke a sense of real intensity that continues to carry through not only the characters she plays, but the films she has a hand in making. Last years Sound of My Voice paired her with friend and director Zal Batmanglij to produce one of my favorite films of 2012 while reassuring me and everyone else that science fiction didn't have to necessarily be big, bold new worlds and fantastic technology to be engaging, but it simply had to have a precise goal and Sound of My Voice was a film very specific in what it wanted to accomplish and did so with a perfect balance of mystery and intrigue. while I completely adore that film and was happy to see Marling re-team with Batmanglij again this year I was thankful they weren't treading the same ground, but were instead moving on to different subject matter completely while still looking to strike up a conversation. With The East these two young, but equally wise artists bring our attention to moral dilemmas. Though the film will grab you in advertisements by purporting to be a slick espionage thriller that follows a rookie agent on her first assignment there is so much more to the film than this generic sounding synopsis. The film is ultimately about deciding what is worth doing that many see as wrong for the greater good of what you believe is right. That is the purpose of the titular-named group that Marling's protagonist Sarah is pulled into and while we certainly expect her to make some type of connection with these people who genuinely feel they have to do these wrong things for the right reasons it comes as a surprise where Sarah ends up going on the arc this movie gives her. There is a balance here that doesn't lean too far in one direction so as to present a slanted view, but in all earnestness wants to create a big picture while getting the small details right in order to make it feel as honest as possible.

Sarah (Brit Marling) and Luca (Shiloh Fernandez) in The East
Beginning almost harmlessly with a soft introduction to Sarah the film gives very subtle hints to the type of person she is without letting us get to know her outright by anything she says or any stance she takes on a certain subject. This is done very skillfully as we want to get to know Sarah through her reactions to the morality and the purpose of the members of the east who she no doubt assumed were nothing more than angry youths attempting to rise up and prove "the man" wrong. The first slight twist on the character though is that she isn't an FBI agent or member of a large government organization, but instead goes to work for a company that infiltrates groups such as the east, but are hired by the corporations themselves  They are paid by the corporations under attack to do away with these "pests" as they are more commonly referred to. In this idea itself the films presents a kind of assessment on corporate espionage in that is what they are doing any different from what these corporations are being attacked for if they are protecting them? Should they too be held accountable for the actions of those they guard? In line with that train of thought writers Marling and Batmanglij give the east a kind of upper hand as they aren't necessarily doing anything bad or evil, but instead asking for the companies who make millions upon millions off of their products to do unto themselves as they would do to others. That idea of the president of an oil company being so far from the actual issue is brought home in the opening scenes of the film and is not only a great way to kick start the film, introduce you to motivations, but also demonstrates the way in which the east works. They do have a type of eye for eye mentality, but at least they have the intelligence to think through their actions and instead of simply going in and killing CEO's for the pure reason of vengeance they are instead attempting to make a statement out of what they do to the people who are responsible for bigger tragedies that happen to people who aren't as high profile. They aren't your typical antagonists and that leads you to question what side you would decide to take, just as it does Sarah.

There is very much a thoughtfulness to the way the film plays out and as Sarah becomes more and more entangled in the world of the east the more she begins to not recognize that woman she was at the beginning of the movie or the girlfriend she was who seemed to be living a rather oblivious life now that whole new worlds and points of view have been opened up to her. As this kind of subjective follower Marling doesn't ever make us worried for the safety of Sarah, but more the mystery of which way her allegiance is swaying. While she isn't a completely accessible character we understand that she is well-trained, has a cold stare, and a strict set of rules or codes she likely allows herself to live by which makes it all the more impressive when the group of anarchists do begin to persuade her into seeing things from their perspective. As the leader of the east Alexander Skarsgard, who I haven't seen do much but has a strong presence (no, I don't watch True Blood), presents someone who is guarded but clearly charismatic and very calculated. The less he talks, the less he gives away about himself the more we feel he knows. He is at some points an ominous figure that guides his followers, for lack of a better word, in the way of how they should accomplish their goals rather than barking orders. Even in the way he has set up the group to relate with one another is very much something that is at first odd and could be considered off-putting, but works in a way to make the members, including Sarah, become more at ease with one another while never coming off as the ceremonial initiations they actually are. Among other members of the group are Ellen Page as Izzy, Toby Kebbell as Doc and Shiloh Fernandez as Luca. There are a few other members that float in and out of their base house and the story who serve more exterior purposes, but this core group is made appealing by the way in which they function as a unit and I was especially pleased with Page who I usually find more off-putting than engaging, but she really has the grit and passion to pull off the kind of person we need to believe Izzy is and would have to be to make it where she has and become such an influential figure. In a more supporting role, Patricia Clarkson does some delicious work as Sarah's boss that only gives us more reason to feel ambiguous about our allegiance.

Izzy (Ellen Page) and Benji (Alexander Skarsgard) head up the titular anarchist group.
Where the film excels in so many areas and presents so many interesting questions and stirs up what would no doubt be a meaty conversation it completely loses control of in the final act. I don't know if it was simply because they needed to hurry up and wrap things up, but where the first three-fourths of the film feel so at ease and naturalistic the conclusion is surprisingly stale and much more pleasant than I would have initially expected. Where Sound of My Voice did well not just to nail the ending with satisfaction and lingering questions, The East leaves little to the imagination and instead opts to put wrap a bow nicely around everything which essentially excuses us from believing all of the issues, all of the problems, and lying and profiteering that is going on are really things that won't affect most of us in our day to day lives. The impressions and the feelings those kinds of statements were leaving on us are completely washed away by the very definitive final shots. It is almost too easy. This was my only real complaint with the film though as everything leading up to it is very well executed and expertly paced so as to create an atmosphere, a certain mood and level of tense uncertainty that has a pin stuck in its balloon when the third act turns into the very thing the film portrays itself as in the ad campaign. This is no standard, run of the mill, action thriller, but having given us all these questions and raising ideas about what is truly right and wrong and if these people aren't going about it the right way, what would you do? How would you do it better? It actively gives us a chance to chime in and put in our two cents on these very complicated and diverse ideas about what is justified and what isn't only to resort to giving us an easy out in the end. Not only is this disappointing, but I expected more from both Marling and Batmanglij as they are clearly smarter than this cop out suggests. If they wanted to make a statement go all the way with it and don't do so much work and set so much up only to soften the blow in the final minutes. It isn't worth sitting through if we don't take away the themes and ideas that made you want to sit down and make the movie in the first place; that the film does such a good job of getting these ideas ingrained in us despite its lackluster ending is a testament to how great most of this film is.