We review The East – A tense, thought provoking and morally ambiguous espionage thriller

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Brit Marling loves to ask questions. In Another Earth, the writer-actress delved into questions of self-forgiveness, with Sound of My Voice it was all about questions of faith and with her latest, The East, she broaches the subject of public accountability and morality. These are most definitely not new questions being asked in cinema, but what Marling does is ask them in really weird settings: With a second Earth from a parallel universe hanging in the sky, in the creepy cult of a lady who claims she’s from the future, and with The East it’s in the cinder-shell hovel of a hideout of a group of eco-terrorists who think dunking CEO’s in toxic waste is a fun night out.

Reteaming with her Sound of My Voice director Zal Batmanglij – who gets instant street cred for having “Batman” in his name – Marling has weaved together a tale where black and white hats are swapped between cast mates rather frequently. This state of mercurial morality and a ramping sense of tension – not quite as severe as the nerve jangling claustrophobic levels of tension achieved in Sound of My Voice though – means that this is not a film for everybody though.

Fans of the whiz-bang-boom style of cinema where heroes have a propensity for emoting in explosions will probably find it a bit too subdued for their tastes. But just because it lacks any kind of flashy pyrotechnics, doesn’t mean that it’s boring. In fact, Batmanglij – showing a confident growth in his skill behind the camera – manages to pace the film superbly, keeping it moving from one plot-driven set-piece to the next with nothing but compelling characters and arguments providing the bristling momentum for the most part.

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Those characters are led by Marling who stars as Sarah Moss, a former FBI agent turned operative for Hiller Brood, a private intelligence firm who offer their services to corporations to help ferret out any threats to their clients. In Sarah’s case her task is to track down, infiltrate and expose The East, a mysterious group of subversives living on the burnt out fringes of society, hell bent on striking back at big company CEOs, whose businesses are harming the lives and homes of innocent bystanders, by any means necessary to drive home their point. You spill oil on their beaches, they spill oil all over your beach house; you poison their towns’ rivers, they poison you in the river. It’s Old Testament justice with a 21st century spin.

Unfortunately for Sarah, and more importantly her boss (played by a ball-busting Patricia Clarkson), once she’s infiltrated the group she finds that while their tactics may be extreme their sentiment is extremely sound, and she’s no longer sure if she actually wants to help stop the three “jams” – acts of criminal eco-terrorism – that the group has promised before they plan to disappear again. Especially since charismatic leader Benji (Alexander Skarsgard) is giving her the googly eyes, and she’s just won over the begrudging respect and friendship of the group’s resident hardass, Izzy (Ellen Page).

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Now none of these plot points will be breaking new ground and some may even call it predictable, but Marling and Batmanglij offers a very well prepared and even-handed approach to the whole affair that really will leave viewers questioning just whose flags they’ll be waving. The fact that the principal leads – rounded out by Shiloh Fernandez as the bohemian Luca and Toby Kebbell as the tragic Doc – all offer magnetic performances also won’t help your flip-flopping allegiance.

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It’s just a pity that as the tension mounts and the film barrels to it’s conclusion, it comes off the rails ever so slightly. Characters suddenly and jarringly are forced to morph into the Hollywood-styled heroes/heroines that the film has so deftly been avoiding the entire time, and there’s no denying that they narrative concludes rather clumsily. You almost get the feeling that there’s still a lot more story that needed to be told here and not enough time to tell it properly. That feeling being compounded by the fact that the final story beats literally play out during the film’s end credits. And yet, paradoxically, despite me wanting them to show a little more than what they did, I would probably actually have preferred it if they didn’t try to tell that final bit of the story at all, and rather left it completely open to audiences’ interpretation. It’s not as if you’re not going to find yourself sitting in your seat, reflecting on what you’ve just seen.

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All in all though, final stretch stumbles aside, The East is a smart, slick and taut thriller that also boasts an intense attention to detail shown in this world of hoodie wearing spooks and dumpster diving terrorists. It may not be as intellectually challenging and complex as Sound of My Voice, nor as emotionally arresting as Another Earthbut The East still offers a great third effort from Marling, and combined second with Batmanglij, that once again marks them as filmmakers to keep an eye on.

Last Updated: August 15, 2013

Kervyn Cloete

A man of many passions - but very little sleep - I've been geeking out over movies, video games, comics, books, anime, TV series and lemon meringues as far back as I can remember. So show up for the geeky insight, stay for the delicious pastries.

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