The East combines two movie genres, a deep undercover spy story with a drama that brings social issues to the discussion, specifically targeting the gray areas.
Brit Marling is Jane, a Christian, Republican and a corporate spy lying to her boyfriend (Jason Ritter) about what she does. Her director (Patricia Clarkson) selects her to be the one to infiltrate a group of eco-terrorists that call themselves “The East,” who hide deep in the woods to plan out vengeful acts to the heads of corporations and shame them for their hurtful crimes that they can buy their way out of. They want those who are destroying the land for profit to be held accountable for being careless with their operations.
These “jams” are not designed to hurt people, but some of the events that draw their interest are a large oil spill, dumping hazardous waste into nearby water supplies that lead to cancer, or passing through pharmaceuticals that are harmful. According to The East, big businesses don’t balk at public pleas, they need their cages rattled. The East takes the matters more personal, an eye-for-an-eye attitude, led by grizzled Benji (Alexander Skarsgard) and guarded Izzy (Ellen Page). But upon meeting them and other members (Shiloh Fernandez, Toby Kebbell, Hillary Baack and Danielle Mcdonald) under her cover, Sarah, finds that this group of rag tag, anti-big business vigilantes are more a loving family that lives off dumpster diving, free hugs, and group bathing than the scary, drugged out terrorists they are portrayed as in the media.
Marling is an up and comer creative force and an absorbing actress in whatever she does, especially in projects she writes. She co-wrote The East with director Zal Batmanglij. They last collaborated on last year’s indie-undercover cult-jam, Sound of My Voice. Marling was also terrific in another film she wrote, Another Earth. There’s an earnestness to the way she acts that is find compelling and pleasing to watch. She doesn’t play to any one extreme or specific mold, she portrays her characters of familiarity with convincing fashion and strength beyond her years in the business.
As Jane, Marling manages to blend in as “Sarah,” an independent, eager and willing participant and resourceful newcomer. She quickly earns the trust of Benji and Izzy and eventually earns a spot on a jam and her performance leads to more intense invites. The knot tied to her real life begins to loosen, and she drifts away from her boyfriend and disregards her director’s warnings. Without the breakneck pacing of a bigger budgeted spy film or television show, some grand chase scene, or some clock counting down The East allows us to believe in this small scale spy game and Jane’s cover, an everyday person we have met or know in our own lives.
The East watches much bigger than its small budget film two thirds in, but starts to become undone in its final act when we start to see Sarah losing her grip of who she is in the game and becomes increasingly sympathetic to the East’s causes. Once things become personal, the stakes get raised, and real motive comes into question on all fronts.
Trying to find a neat ending muddies up what was a marvelous little ride and any ambiguity about big businesses, the environment or who the bad guys are in all of this gets undercut by a mismatched end credits sequence that looks like it was borrowed from one of the Bourne movies. Still The East is worth the time spent to see Marling, Skarsgard and Page working together to tell an original, indie-scaled edition of the popular deep cover. It’s a polished and accomplished work, with imperfections, but that’s what’s exciting about investing the time in emerging talents like Batmanglij and Marling.