It’s not often that you see a movie about the American side of terrorism. “The East” follows an operative from a private intelligence firm, Sarah (Brit Marling), tasked with infiltrating an eco-terrorist cell headed by Benji (Alexander Skarsgard). Once inside the belly of the beast, Sarah must deal with conflicting feelings she has towards her mission and her growing attachment to the group. The film gets off to a hot start, but falls flat once the later half shows up.
“The East” is the second movie from Zal Batmanglij, who directed and co-wrote along with Marling, the effective 2011 thriller, “Sound of My Voice”. With “The East” Batmanglij and Marling take a look inside the world of “freegans” and those sick of all the big bad corporations out to get everyone. The performers all do their part, notably Skarsgard, who plays a deeply devoted disciple leading a pack of lost souls. Britt Marling, who co-wrote the film, shows Sarah as a double-sided coin, afraid to let her feelings get the best of her. The film talks a big game, but after the plot gets under way, something is seriously missing.
Sarah is set-up to think that if she’s found out, she’ll be nixed. I had trouble believing that considering how little conflict there is between the group itself. Everyone seems to be pretty laid back, except for Izzy (played by Ellen Page), who may think something’s up with Sarah but quickly abandons that for one reason or another. Leading to the film’s biggest issue: Sarah’s initiation. Getting into the group isn’t that difficult for her, and once she’s in, not a single thread of mystery is left. Everything is laid out in front of the audience. For a group as supposedly mysterious as “The East”, they don’t really worry too much about anyone finding them, or taking in wide-eyed outsiders that obviously don’t fit the profile.
The film also has trouble answering a lot of its own questions. Who’s to blame? Is violence and retaliation the answer? The “jams” or revenge plots performed by the group seem to have little regard on the outcome. The first of these “jams” suffers from a clunky execution, while the next is so overly preachy on both sides that it takes away from the impact. Instead of mounting suspense, the film focuses mainly on Sarah’s inner turmoil, played well by Marling, but not enough to sustain the nearly two-hour runtime.
You can’t shake the feeling that this movie is heavily under scripted. Marling and Batmanglij have obviously done their homework, but the sequence of events fail to build momentum. It’s a tricky thing when constructing a narrative around a movie that tries to escape the trappings of its genre. They succeed in being unconventional, but after a while, all were left to do is wait until the inevitable twists and turns come in the final frames.
I like my spy movies with heavy tension and an extra side of intrigue. Unfortunately “The East” has little of either. The approach taken by the filmmakers to show a realistic espionage game earns points for effort, but could have used a serious punch-up. If the gifted Batmanglij/Marling team had given “The East” more time to grow, we could’ve had something here. Instead we are left with an unrealized vision of what could have been; a film with promise, bogged down by unevenness and finger pointing.