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By Jim Rohner · June 3, 2013
The East is bookended by the same prayer, a petition to God from undercover operative Sarah (Brit Marling). Sarah's first prayer, a request for strength and wisdom to accomplish the job at hand, comes shortly after she's tasked with infiltrating The East, an elusive eco-terrorist group that has targeted high-ranking, high-paid corporate executives where they live and work.
The second prayer comes immediately before the film cuts to black, giving off the illusion that Marling and fellow co-writer/director Zal Batmanglij have fulfilled an emotionally satisfying arc that has seen Sarah reconcile her personal faith with her time spent among the "enemy," who have shown more dedication to a higher moral and ethical code than the corporate executives she's been hired to protect. In all actuality, the prayers, which reek of last minute script rewrites, are superficial inclusions passing themselves off as moral complexity; fitting for a film that is essentially a heavy-handed environmental message masquerading under the superficial veneer of being a feature film.
On paper, The East has all the trappings of a standard undercover story. Once Sarah adapts a derelict lifestyle and gains access into the reclusive yet tight-knit community of The East, she meets the key players—Benji (Alexander Skarsgard), Izzy (Ellen Page), Doc (Toby Kebbell), Luca (Shiloh Fernandez), and Tess (Danielle Macdonald)—familiarizes herself with their mantra, sees firsthand the horror of their ecoterrorism and the beauty of their rapport, returns home to find she has trouble readjusting to the normal world, rinse, repeat.
Moral complexity in a film such as The East would come into play in the juxtaposition between the horror of The East's retribution—drugging pharmaceutical executives with their own damaging product, forcing coal executives to swim in the polluted runoff of their own factories—and the nobility of the minority causes for which they fight—to defend the earth and its resources, to hold accountable those who consider themselves above the law and consequences. In the middle of the black and the white would be the grey area where we're lead to believe Sarah will vacillate between the pros and cons of both, but the filmmakers are so concerned with laying out the battleground that they fall short on fully fleshing out the soldiers who are doing battle on it.
The East are the titular characters of the film and while it’s their prowess and fierceness that incites Sarah's undercover mission, it is—or, more accurately, it's supposed to be—their humanity and their familial bonds that cause her to linger. Despite the time Sarah spends amongst the broken down house where The East squats and plots, very little is actually known about the group members' backgrounds aside from a very convenient and saccharin speech from Doc, who comes closest, even closer than Sarah, to being the only three-dimensional character this film can boast.
Efforts are made to provide backstory to Benji and Izzy, the implied senior members of The East, but they come off as obligatory, too little too late moments that, even if effective at providing insight into the minds of terrorists, would still only accomplish half the battle thanks to Marling and Batmanglij dropping the ball with the blank slate protagonist. Marling has proven to be an exceptional actress in the past, but no furtive stares off into the distance can make up for the fact that we know very little about Sarah aside from her apparent interest in Christian radio stations. Even after that's been established, the thread gets dropped and never until the very last shot do we get any sense that faith or belief has been a factor, good or bad, in Sarah's life. It'd be nice to have heard the words of Jeremiah 2:7 (a Bible verse about stewardship of the earth) or Luke 6:31 (the famous "do unto others" passage), but aside from the paycheck Sarah is presumably collecting, there's no indication that she has anything to gain or lose from her work and there is nothing depicted that's so horrible to make her second guess her convictions one way or another.
What makes this lack of nuance so upsetting is that there exists within The East the potential to be a truly excellent film on the admittedly alluring yet ill-advised idea of returning abuse to those who consider themselves above consequences. But as it exists now with all its character flaws, The East actually and almost inadvertently comes off as quite ambivalent one way or the other.