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Review: The East (2013)

The East (2013)

Directed by: Zal Batmanglij

Premise: An operative (Brit Marling) for a private intelligence firm infiltrates an eco-terrorist group that attacks the executives of major corporations.

What Works: The East is very much a story of the moment. It channels a lot of contemporary political concerns regarding surveillance, terrorism, environmental damage, and the rise of corporate power. This is a story about a woman who is paid to infiltrate and undermine a subversive group but as she gets to know the people and their politics she is gradually seduced and questions her allegiances. This is a familiar story formula and for it to work the radical characters and their politics must suggest some credibility. The screenwriters of The East, who include the director Zal Batmanglij and star Brit Marling, do this very well by creating an engaging and empathetic cast of social dissidents and set them up against corporate entities who are engaged in unethical and destructive practices. However, The East is not so black and white. Brit Marling’s character is witness to the devastation wrought by these corporations but the retaliatory actions of the anarchist group aren’t much better. This is a morally and ethically complex movie in which characters appear to be one thing but are later revealed to be another and still later evolve into something else. This is especially true of characters played by Alexander Skarsgård and Ellen Page. Skarsgård plays the leader of the group and he is generally mysterious and possesses a violent streak even though that violence is generally seething below the surface. He is also able to be charismatic and his character is convincing as someone who could attract a crew and maintain their loyalty but his integrity and ultimate agenda are more complicated. Ellen Page plays one of the true believers in the anarchist group and Page is fierce in this role. Page has been known to play snarky and assertive characters but in The East she reveals a level of complexity that she’s rarely shown before; her character is at first self-righteous but as more is revealed about Page’s character she becomes a much more interesting and compromised figure. In tandem with its character work, The East escalates the stakes effectively. The initial pranks of this group aren’t far beyond those of a Farrelly Brothers movie but things gradually become more serious and as they do the morality of the group’s methods and the integrity of its mission start to fray.

What Doesn’t: The East follows the same underlying story structure of every movie about someone going undercover. The lead character is commissioned to infiltrate an apparently sinister group, makes contact with a fringe member who leads her to the central organization, she grows close to the people involved, and eventually gets in too deep and confuses her identity and allegiance. The East does this well and the fact that Brit Marling’s character works for a private security firm instead of law enforcement does add a bit of novelty, but overall the moviemakers play this out exactly as has been seen in other movies. The ending of The East could be characterized as a cop out; the movie revolves around Brit Marling’s character negotiating between rhetoric and reality and having to choose her allegiance. The ending of the movie ultimately sidesteps that choice. While this plays to the ambiguous nature of the film and its complex web of issues, the film is leading toward that moment and to keep the character from making that defining choice leaves the movie without a conclusion.

DVD extras: Deleted scenes, featurettes, and trailers.

Bottom Line: The East is a very smart and well-made movie. This is the kind of picture that sometimes gets dismissed for being too political but it’s exactly the kind of movie that we could use a little more of: an ambitious story that intelligently dramatizes the matters of the day without dumbing them down.

Episode: #506 (August 31, 2014)