Today: April 19, 2024

The East

So far this year there have been many larger summer studio action spectaculars that deliver the thrills but lack any heart or intelligence. Thankfully The East has arrived to give us something to think about, both while we watch and after the final credits.

Ex-FBI agent Sarah Moss (Brit Marling) has just achieved her first assignment for her new employer, the secretive and exclusive personal intelligence firm Hiller Brood. Just to get to this point has meant 100% commitment, relentless study, research and full confidentiality. Telling her boyfriend she’s off to Dubai for a while, she in fact gives up her suits and suitcase for a hoody and backpack, dyes her hair and goes undercover as a traveller in search of The East, an elusive group of anarchists who target the bosses of companies responsible for corporate crimes and make them taste their own medicine, literally on one occasion.

After joining various counter-culture groups making their own journeys through America living off the world as they see it, stowing away on trains, finding each day’s meal by raiding dumpsters, until she manages to convince lipstick-smudged Luca (Shiloh Fernandez– Dead Girl, Evil Dead) to take her to the heart and headquarters of The East’s activity. There she understands a new way of sharing under the guidance of all-knowing patriarch Benji (Alexander Skarsgård – True Blood) and soon finds herself welcomed into the commune, against the initially suspicious wishes of passionate freedom fighter Izzy (Ellen Page – Juno, Hard Candy). Soon, she begins to not only get along with them all, especially the fit-prone Doc (a show stealing performance from Toby Kebbell – Dead Man’s Shoes), but also learns that all the members of The East have their own deep-rooted justification for taking revenge against the water companies and pharmaceutical conglomerates, coming from privileged backgrounds themselves. The deeper undercover she goes, the closer she gets to her assigned targets and their causes, and the less she wants to give them up.

Co-written by director Zal Matmanglij and actress Brit Marling, The East follows on with similar themes from their previous collaboration, 2011’s seductive and surreal Sound Of My Voice.  This time it’s played out on a larger scale with all the hallmarks of a modern Hollywood spy thriller, Patricia Clarkson playing the role of Sarah’s coldly calculating boss as if she was auditioning to inherit “M” from Judi Dench, but there is a true warmth and authenticity to the commune scenes which helps the audience believe in the causes as much as the characters.

Equally inspired by the BP disaster and The Occupy protests as alternatives to modern living, both Marling and Batmanglij were inspired to write the story based on their own experiences a few summers ago.  Giving up their modern lifestyle and living in a similar way to their on-screen creations, hopping trains and living in deserted buildings with nomadic groups, learning alternative ways of providing and being provided for and this authenticity comes alive on screen.

Skarsgard proves yet again that his acting prowess goes beyond what now appears to be a contractual obligation to strip off and glow in the warmth of the sun. Marling confidently proving any prime role should now be hers for the talking, playing Sarah with a cool determination covering a conflicted conscience. The only downside is that the passions the characters feel for each other are not as convincing as those for their causes they believe in so fervently.

Although the finale is a little hurried to fit the expected thriller conventions, it concludes with a more subversive message than one would expect and leaves the audience wrestling their own consciences, ever so slightly.

Gritty yet warming, The East is a refreshingly intelligent thriller with heart and a thought-provoking experience.

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