This review was originally published on January 21, 2013 as part of Film.com's coverage of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
If "The East" were from anyone other than writer/director Zal Batmanglij and writer/star Brit Marling, I'd be much more excited about it. That may not be fair to the work, but it is how I feel. Their independently produced sci-fi thriller "Sound of My Voice" was so sharp, exciting and itching to dazzle that this solid but conventional outing can't help but feel a tiny bit like a sophomore slump. My number one takeaway from "The East" is annoyance — why did these two feel they needed to make their movie in this traditional way?
"The East" is still a good yarn, though, and I shouldn't blame it for being made by people who made it. Brit Marling plays Sarah, a whip-smart young intelligence agent recruited by a firm providing information and security to corporate clients. An Anonymous-esque group called The East is currently targeting individuals at the top of conglomerates whose products and practices have deleterious environmental consequences. These actions, called "jams," are more than just street theater. The East's "eye for an eye" attitude is heightened radicalism, and while their intentions certainly elicit our sympathies, their actions are only for too-far-gone believers.
Dyeing her hair and hanging out with banjo players gets Sarah in with the freegan anarchists fairly quickly. At first the collective, ostensibly led by Benji (Alexander Skarsgard) but balanced by Izzy (Ellen Page), seems like a weirdo cult. This perception soon fades, though maybe that is because Sarah's attitude toward them starts to shift.
Marling's character is no mere blank vessel, though; her boss Sharon (Patricia Clarkson) describes her as "smart enough to be at a disadvantage." She's also a practicing Christian, so The East's call for social justice surely resonates with her. When she tags along for jams, she is torn between doing her job, warning the marks who may be in danger or going through with the plan.
Sarah and the other group members are all fascinating. An evening of spin the bottle may sound like trite screenwriting, but Batmanglij and Marling wrote it as a marvelous, revealing sequence. Some of the revelations concerning how the members of the group got there may seem a little obvious, but each of the performers nail the desperation that comes with total political commitment.
My main beef with the film is the somewhat facile attitude toward big fat corporations. Come on, every single one of them is poisoning us? I'm cool with "The East" believing that, but not so sure about "The East" believing that.
That said, I offer genuine huzzahs to the film's conclusion. Without giving away final twists or action beats, this is a movie that proposes a genuine, intelligent solution, both for the main character and for us. It comes at you kinda quickly (and economically, in about three wordless shots), but it hit me like a bag of dumpster-dived apples to the gut.
It feels strange to be disappointed by what is, by all rights, a good movie. Perhaps that's just because of my absolute admiration of "Sound of My Voice," with its ineffable tone and ambiguous plotting. But if "The East" has any lesson it's that complete, fanatical devotion may not be the best course of action. To that end, I ultimately recommend "The East" in any context.
SCORE: 7.5 / 10