A terrific follow-up to the 2011 sleeper hit The Sound of Voice, The East is a stellar, subversive effort from director Zal Batmanglij, within a well-worn framework. Sarah (exquisitely played by Britt Marling, who also co-wrote the script) is an operative for a private intelligence firm who is chosen by her boss Sharon (Patricia Clarkson on top form) to infiltrate an eco-terrorist group known as ‘The East’. After a number of false starts, Sarah finds herself as the newest member of the faction run by the charismatic Benji (Alexander Skarsgård). However, the longer she stays with them, the more Sarah begins to question her own motives and the entire purpose of her operation. Although structured like a classic thriller, The East subverts the genre by shifting the attention onto Sarah – the plot is peppered with familiar set-pieces, but it is her journey which proves to be both unusual and captivating.
At the beginning of the film, Sarah’s devotion seems straightforward. However, as she is exposed to the ideological rhetoric served by ‘The East’, she becomes strangely seduced by it. While the rhetoric itself might not be anything special, it is Sarah’s nature that is under dissection here: an aimless soul looking for a sense of belonging. Perhaps her closest relationship is with Sharon and, in a key scene, the two women, who are both equally strong-headed with impressive minds, have a quiet confrontation full of unexpected emotional responses from each other.
The heavy symbolism that explains Sarah’s plight can grate at times, but it’s hard not to be impressed with the way the script is re-inventing clichés with aplomb. While the audience will be expecting some of the narrative cornerstones, it’s the key character development that takes The East beyond usual mainstream fare. Coupled with Batmanglij’s uneasy and yet serene cinematic language, the film becomes yet another off-kilter journey into the heart of human nature.
Although all performances are top-notch, Ellen Page seems an unnecessary choice for her part – she seems to be the least likely member of ‘The East’, though rectifies it during her confrontation with one of the CEOs of the companies the group targets. Julia Ormond also pops up in a small cameo, and her performance is as terrific as ever.
The music is prophetically eerie, with quiet, low notes clashing against the uneasy action on screen. Those expecting an eco-thriller with a serious message will be disappointed, as The East does not really care about its surface subject matter. However, everyone willing to invest in peeling off the layers of the film will be delighted by the unusual take on the logistics of ideological seduction.
The finale is equally exciting: Batmanglij delivers a coda which might seem frustratingly banal, yet his full stop only expands on Sarah’s journey for those willing to look. On the whole, The East is another impressive mark on both Batmanglij and Marling’s filmography, who are fast establishing themselves as two of the key members of the American indie scene.
Watch the trailer: