Confessing to her boyfriend, Sarah (Brit Marling) wonders why anyone would want her job. As a former FBI-agent who moved to the private sector as an undercover operative, Sarah’s concerns stem from an increasingly strained relationship with a rogue cult leader named Benji (Alexander Skarsgard) and his environmentalist terrorist cell known as the East. Targeting companies and their CEOs, the group takes an eye-for-an-eye approach. Referred to as “jams”, the cell takes dangerous and at times brutal action against ecologically destructive corporations. As the picture escalates in size, the foreign and intrinsically primitive nature of the East’s actions suggests a measure of sympathy from Sarah and the audience.
Impeding much of Sarah’s actions are her obligations to her employer (realized in an icy performance from Patricia Clarkson). Sarah mirrors the sensibilities of her boss as she willingly gives up her life - she rides the rails and adopts a freeganist lifestyle in search of a way into the terrorist cell. Co-written by Brit Marling and director Zal Batmangli, the first act of The East is remarkably terse though inspired. As Sarah hits dead-ends and struggles to find a lead on any members of the East we’re left perpetually captivated in a performance and role reminiscent of Jessica Chastain’s in Zero Dark Thirty. But the pacing is undercut by Sarah’s quick infiltration and indoctrination into the group’s philosophy. From here, The East’s politics and social accusations become shrouded in an ill-conceived romance and derivative back-stories.
Batmangli and Marling’s previous film Sound of My Voice, possessed the mysterious and nuanced aura that The East strives for. The East is encumbered by its broader scope and implicit social concerns that never feel fully realized. The film’s philosophy ends up becoming a pile of contradictions when the group’s environmental concerns are seen through a selfish perspective i.e; Izzy’s (Ellen Page) “jam” ends up being an attempt for her to reconcile father abandonment issues rather than having anything to do with the East’s convictions. Perhaps haphazardly, the film does address a particularly interesting idea of vocational devotion and the broadening of one’s worldview. Sarah, who initially starts out as a blank slate, shows an emotional pulse when she works on her first “jam”, where we see her adoration for work come to a halt. Still, the film never fleshes out much of its ideas and becomes more an exercise in opaque theories.
But like Sound of My Voice, Batmangli and Marling have an incredible knack for developing a tense scene. Individual moments of the film, even if they possess little consequence to its worldview, can be delightfully coy. A strap-jacket dinner sequence and a game of spin the bottle are incredibly successful and unlikely to be forgotten. Marling’s presence makes her one of the most interesting actresses today, balancing strength, naivety, and fear within single takes. The East’s blights are impossible to ignore, but it’s hard to dissuade anyone from seeing a motivated piece of work from people honing their craft.