Despite its many qualities, it isn’t surprising that The East has failed to secure anything but a very limited release in Australian cinemas. This intelligent, well-crafted espionage thriller lacks the excesses that seem so necessary to attract audiences in large numbers these days, namely exotic locations, sex, violence, special effects, elaborate action sequences and explosions galore. Thankfully, The East eschews these superficialities in favour of crafting an intriguing story populated by a variety of morally compromised characters.
Brit Marling, who also co-wrote and produced the film, stars as Sarah, an operative working for a private security and intelligence organisation who infiltrates an eco-terrorist collective known as The East. This group has been responsible for a series of ‘jams’ targeting individuals and organisations polluting the environment and Sarah is charged with gathering information about their future activities in an effort to protect potential targets. Led by Benji (Alexander Skarsgard) – who is equal parts charisma and enigma – the group is a ragtag bunch of eco-terrorists, all of whom seem to have their own agenda. Whilst able to infiltrate the group with surprising ease, Sarah is subjected to significant resistance from Izzy (Ellen Page), whose distrust grows as the inevitable relationship between Sarah and Benji blossoms.
The contrasting worlds that Marling and co-writer/director Zal Batmanglij have created are fascinating and it is hard to know which side we are supposed to support. Likewise, Sarah finds herself conflicted between her mission and this group of pariahs whose intentions, if not their methods, seem noble. As she becomes enmeshed in the lifestyle of The East – eating food salvaged from dumpsters and living without electricity – Sarah finds it harder to return to her normal life. As the stakes are raised, she is forced to decide where her loyalties lie and just how far she is willing to go.
The only real problem for me with The East is that Marling’s performance lacks depth and, as a result, Sarah’s expressions never change. We are expected to believe that she is torn between these two disparate worlds, but this conflict is rarely visualised through physicality or emotion. Furthermore, Sarah remains a glamorous, staid and somewhat straitlaced figure throughout, making it hard at times to accept her as part of a group for whom the superficiality of appearances and traditional attitudes/behaviours are only acceptable when they suit the purposes of achieving their ultimate aims. Marling’s character is more in keeping with her roles in the likes of Arbitrage or The Company You Keep (which bears many thematic and ideological similarities to The East) than that of somebody trying to ingratiate themselves with a radical band of quasi-anarchists. Given that she had so much input into the production of the film, it is surprising that Marling wasn’t prepared to push the envelope in transforming her character physically, behaviourally and emotionally.
The sexy Skarsgard (What Maisie Knew, Melancholia) is perfectly cast as the mysterious and damaged Benji, while Page (Juno, Inception) is, as always, terrific as the impassioned Izzy. As Sharon, the head of the intelligence agency for whom Sarah works, Patricia Clarkson is more Disney-style wicked witch than spymaster M, seemingly devoid of any conscience whatsoever. British actress Julia Ormond (Inland Empire, My Week with Marilyn) and TV regular Jamey Sheridan (Arrow, Smash, Homeland) also feature as targets of the group.
In an industry generally devoid of opportunities for actresses seeking challenging roles, Marling has followed perhaps the only path available to her in creating roles for herself; she also co-wrote and produced Another Earth and Sound of My Voice, the latter of which was also helmed by Batmanglij. As a result, we have a film that refuses to pander to a common denominator of style over substance, raising timely questions about corporate ethics and responsibility in a mature and sophisticated way. Despite its flaws, The East delivers on most fronts and definitely deserves to secure an audience, so catch it while you can.