The timing for director Zal Batmanglij and actress-writer Britt Marling’s film “The East” could not have come at a better time—geopolitically speaking that is. With activists protesting the government in Turkey, Americans questioning their government’s desire to tap phone calls and emails in the name of national security, and Canadians recently uncovering a federal monetary scandal, the time was ripe for a film that is anti-establishment. However, one must not forget that just because a film is critical of big oil companies and those “evil” pharmaceutical companies, does not relieve it of the burden of saying something fresh and meaningful. Unfortunately, “The East” did not dig deep enough into the issues to allow the viewer to question or think intelligently about his or her society and the people that run it.
Writer and lead actress Britt Marling plays Sarah, a former FBI agent turned undercover operative for Hiller Brood, a corporate intelligence firm. Sarah is assigned to infiltrate an eco-terrorist group known as The East whose leader, Benj (Alexander Skarsgard) organizes attacks, or “jams”, against companies that harm the environment and the people in it through their hazardous practices all in the name of profit. The East’s mandate is to give these companies “a taste of their own medicine” through mass poisoning of the executives, their families and their homes. The film follows the classic trope of ‘how far is too far’ and as Sarah lives with the secret group whose members include the acid-tongued Izzy played by Ellen Page and Doc (Toby Kebbell). Stockholm syndrome begins to set in and lo and behold—Sarah begins to sympathize with the group and their philosophy.
Please tell me why!
What is truly irksome about “The East” is that writer Marling and director Batmanglij assume the audience’s allegiance with the East who, although are cast as terrorists, are a group of outcasts who are rather mild-mannered and pleasant. The audience is never given the chance to truly understand their motivation, or why they do what they do. All we really see throughout the film are a few kids who choose to live in the woods and scorn the consumerist society that they have rejected. It is one thing to scorn society; it is another to actively seek to terrorize it. Although it is clear that these kids are angry, we are not given any clues as to how or why these people turned to violence. One scene that was particularly bothersome was when Sarah attempts to persuade one of the members of the East, Eve (Hillary Baack) to leave the group. In a 30 second speech Sarah seems to have been able to affect this girl to the point where she questions her motivations for being in the group. This scene not only highlights the arrogance and self-righteousness of the film, but also shows the lack of motivation of the characters.
An un-suspensfull thriller
Hand-in-hand with the lack of motivation of the characters is the lack of suspense that follows. When I saw the trailer for “The East” I was immediately struck by the soundtrack of the film and the suspense that it seemed to create. The music, however, turned out to be the only aspect of the film that was suspense inducing. At no point in the film was my heart racing. At one point I wondered if I even cared about what happened to the characters. I felt that with the characters’ lack of motivation and the few attacks that actually occurred during the film, it was ultimately a disappointment.
Just because a film purports to provide an important message, does not give it the right to be lackadaisical in the delivery of the message. “The East” was rife with major plot holes and character underdevelopment. It relied on the valor of its message to fill in these holes. Yet, the message was not all that clear and thus, the film was incomplete.