While a welcomed alternative to typical summer movie fare, The East has its issues.
The state of Louisiana is beginning to take shape as the southern location of choice for Hollywood. Films like GI Joe: Retaliation, Broken City, and even 2012 Oscar contenders Django: Unchained and Looper had their origins in The Big Easy. The eco-terrorist drama The East was also shot in Louisiana; and while the Brit Marling/Zal Batmanglij production is a nice alternative to superheroes engaging in city-wide redecoration, its faults almost doom the project.
The film starts with shocking images from the Deepwater Horizon disaster: scenes of birds covered in oil, with a frighteningly calm voice-over from Izzy (Ellen Page, Inception), as she and the elusive eco-terrorist group The East assails a corporate executive's house. But Big Oil isn't the only target on The East's radar: Big Pharma and Big Agro also fall prey to their careful planning and execution. Enter the security firm Hiller-Brood and their top agent Sarah (Brit Marling, Arbitrage), who track down groups like these before turning them over to the FBI, all while making good money in the process. But something funny happens on the way to Sarah infiltrating the group: she begins to form associations with the players including the leader Benji (Alexander Skaarsgard, Battleship), who show her that she might be fighting for the wrong side. What Sarah hopes is just another step on the corporate ladder turns into a very personal and private relationship with people who genuinely care for her. The East is concerned with executing three high-stakes 'jams,' or events designed to target various corporations for destroying people and/or the environment, before themselves disappearing into the Louisiana bayou. And while they've been mostly successful, it hasn't come without great cost. As Sarah and Benji's feelings for each other intensifies, she must decide whether her family is the cold corporate Hiller-Brand, led by Sharon (Patricia Clarkson, Shutter Island), or her newfound terrorist friends.
While The East is one part corporate heist, another part recruitment video, it's also about the personal journey of Sarah as she seeks answers to questions she might not immediately know at film's beginning. Marling and Batmanglij, who collaborated on The Sound of My Voice, add the right amount of current events into things to add legitimacy to their work, while hooking us in with Sarah's slow descent. Like her wayward team, the supporting cast is an odd assortment of the Hollywood established (Tony Kebbell, War Horse), the heartthrob (Skarsgård), and the consummate indie (Page), all of whom sell themselves well enough for us to believe and even empathize with their manifesto. Unfortunately, the script fails in the third act, doing an especially poor job of convincing us why Sarah takes the path she eventually chooses. There's a stinging and repeated criticism that all of corporate America is bad and untrustworthy, and that groups like The East are somehow justified in what they're doing. While it's up to you to decide, the assumption that audiences are simply going to fall in line and support Benji and his team is ill-advised. In the end, there's little buy-in with for us to stay involved, as the question of Sarah's loyalties becomes the dominant path that the film tries to resolve. We're left with an unsatisfying ending that could have been so much more, and character chemistry that feels forced. Think this year's Matt Damon flop Promised Land and you get the gist of where this train is headed.
Hollywood is built upon selling a premise, that the characters and situations displayed on the big screen somehow remind us of ourselves or what we aspire to be. If you're predisposed to distrust Corporate America, then you'll find a connection to Sarah and the larger story of The East. I don't, so I didn't. The East is rated PG-13 and has a runtime of 116 minutes.
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