Writer/star Brit Marling and Co-Writer/Director Zal Batmanglij have the ingredients for a tense spy thriller.
First, not dissimilarly from Prisoners, it asks the sorts of questions few Hollywood films ask, and also features strong actors playing interesting characters. Unlike Prisoners, The East doesn’t ever let its philosophical questions fade into the background, something that works well for it.
Through most of its run time, The East has impeccable pacing, moving along briskly, never dwelling too long on any one topic or scene, but also never moving too fast.
Furthermore, Marling and Batmanglij keep people at the center of this film. Jane/Sarah (Marling) is well developed and easy to care about. She has a certain calm in the face of danger, a calm most of us only wish we could emulate, and she serves as the moral compass for characters on both sides of the issue, a fact that makes her likable. Yet, she is not perfect. She’s subject to influence from those she admires, closed off, selfish, and more than a little naive. These flaws help render her a fully realized character. As does Marling herself, who gives a subtle performance and makes Sarah come to life.
Most of the other principle characters are equally well developed and acted. We understand Benji (Alexander Skarsgard) and Sharon (a terrific Patricia Clarkson) more quickly than Sarah does, because Marling and Batmanglij develop them well. Doc (Tony Kebbell) is also well drafted, and again we understand the motivation behind his choices. All three of these actors consistently hit the right notes, which highlights the script’s strengths and keeps our attention focused.
Yet, the sum of the parts is not what we might expect, given all of the movie’s merits. For one, despite being a didactic message flick, The East does not delve all that deeply into corporate malfeasance. An oil spill in the Atlantic, dumping pollution into a small town’s fresh water supply, and an antibiotic with horrific side effects . . . these are all terrible practices and therefore great fodder for message fiction, but none of them are exactly revelatory. Anyone who pays even moderate attention to world events is well versed in each of these malpractices, meaning The East needs to explore the scandals with more focus if it hopes to shock us. By trying to squeeze all three into a single film, Marling and Batmanglij have under-developed their message and therefore limited its power.
Secondly, Izzy (Ellen Page) is not half so well developed as the other principle characters. She begins the film distrusting Sarah and positioning herself as the chief antagonist, but then the conflict between the two dissapears and Izzy champions Sarah’s participation in one of the group’s so-called Jams. Later, they even share a fairly intimate kiss, at Izzy’s request. Why? Furthermore, unlike Doc’s backstory, Izzy’s is underexplored, at least until it explodes in front of us and fuels a mini-climax that might be more melodramatic than powerful.
Despite the overall strength of The East’s pacing, Marling and Batmanglij rush the final Jam, trying to delay the inevitable, and obvious, revelation instead of letting the characters digest the impending events.
Lastly, the montage that closes this film is too idealistic, especially given that the movie’s central events are not as shocking as the filmmakers would have us believe.
The East is watchable and intriguing, but its flaws prevent it from being memorable.