PLOT: An employee (Marling) for an expansive intelligence firm is sent to infiltrate an anarchist group called The East.
WHO'S IT FOR? Fans of political thrillers, with a more contemporary edge. If you liked Marling's previous Sound of My Voice, you might like this one as well.
The East may feature a moment or two of Brit Marling salvaging a snack from the garbage bin, but this movie isn't a soft response from a peaceful environmentalist.
With its compelling moral compass, The East earns brief surges of intensity during scenes in which the movie's title group has their "jams." This group, as led by Sarsgaard and featuring members played by Page and Kebbell, takes the "eye" in the phrase "eye for an eye" to its extremes, as the ethics for The East turn into personal contamination as punishment for widespread wrongdoing. Dump toxins in the water supply, and we'll make you stand in it and confess that you know what you have done is evil. Instead of chaining themselves to a tree, they'd bulldoze your house. However, as Skarsgaard states himself in the film, "An eye for an eye, nothing more and nothing less."
These scenes provide the morally complicated predicament that functions as its thesis, and is also the movie's most interesting aspect. Character actions are constantly put directly under the moral microscope to see whether these actions are just in the end. Do the actions of The East productively help their cause, or only make it worse?
This film is from the previous duo of 2011's Sound of My Voice, director Batmanglij and actress Marling. Written around the same time as Voice, East is another movie that handles a big question at the center, but doesn't coddle such with much ambiguity. Instead, this followup looks and feels more mainstream, and has a narrowing imagination for open doors. Even the ending of the film is oddly clean cut, especially with the atmosphere of strangeness that seems to define the movie's beginning.
Like Voice, East is co-scripted by Marling, who uses this film as another opportunity to show that she deserves larger recognition as an actress. She certainly does. If anything, and this is admittedly a small remark, Marling's sturdy role stumbles by goofy moments that seem derived directly from the desire for star attention. She oddly tries to achieve this by being in a towel often. She even has a couple silly moments in front of a mirror, one of them including the most aggressive post-hair dye flip I've seen in a long while.
The East is driven by a strong supporting cast who provide personality to this anti-establishment cult. The piercing eyes of Skarsgaard get more mileage with his character here, appearing like a gentle leader who could hurt you against his own desires. He is joined by Page, who hasn't had this type of aggressive angst since Hard Candy.
Stealing the show with a concrete exterior and interior is Patricia Clarkson, who helps humanize this movie's science fiction-like representation of "The Man." The one who sends Marling on this journey, Clarkson's performance is all one needs to understand The East's compelling theory about the power of covert organizations, regardless of whatever side of government they may be on.
While Marling's Sarah might be caught between these two enticing organizations, the course of events in The East ultimately come with a dwindling sense of urgency. After scenes of getting behind the scenes of The East have passed, the movie becomes rather dull, even though it should be doing the exact opposite. The East peaks with its mystery, but then as the veil comes down, this moral thriller struggles to be any more urgent than an open question.
FINAL SCORE: 5/10