The Good: Decent acting, Good message
The Bad: Character development is rushed, Lack of zest/spark
The Basics: The East is an engaging exploration of domestic environmental terrorism in the United States that makes its point early and does not sufficiently develop beyond it to be a timeless work.
As I catch up on the films from earlier this year I missed, I have also been using my free time (limited as it is) to rewatch The West Wing (reviewed here!). The last script I wrote was for a very political film, so I have been very interested in political and economic issues of late. So, between Ellen Page being in it and having a love of political and economic films, The East was a movie I have been eager to watch. Having finally sat down to watch it, I was enthusiastic when it began, but the longer it went on, the less impressed I was by it. I suppose watching The West Wing for hours a day as I type, I have come to expect all my political film and television to have some zest and character. The East lacks both.
That is not to say The East is bad. It is not at all bad and it even had a few moments that genuinely surprised me. But, fundamentally, The East is hampered by the fact that it makes its point in the first five minutes and does not truly ratchet home anything genuinely new after that. The East takes a stance that extreme environmentalists commit acts of terrorism against corporations and those corporations hire secret intelligence agencies to protect their assets. But the film does not debate that and it only slightly argues the methods the environmental terrorists use.
After the home of a CEO of an oil company is vandalized, the private security firm Hiller Brood is hired to infiltrate the environmental terrorist organization, The East. Sarah is an agent for Hiller Brood tasked to join The East and report back to her boss and handler, Sharon. Tailing a federal agent after getting beaten for hopping a train, Sarah cuts her own wrists to get brought in. After a short time living in the woods with Benji, Izzy, and the rest of the East, Sarah manages to replace one of the operatives on a mission to a party hosted by a prominent pharmaceutical company’s CEO. Suspecting Benji of poisoning the champagne at the event with the company’s own drug, Sarah tries to expose Benji, but Sharon will not blow her cover because that company is not her client.
Sarah returns to The East house to spy on the group while they plan the two subsequent attacks the group has announced. Sharon wants to thwart the operations so Hiller Brood can pick up two new clients and enter the big leagues of corporate spying. While Sarah gets closer to Benji and Izzy, she finds herself less able to live with her boyfriend away from the East House. When Izzy’s operation takes the East to a business – run by her own father – that poisons the water supply of nearby cities, Sarah’s perceptions change drastically and she finds herself forced to decide whether to stand by her principles or her employer.
The East loses some of its punch in that it, like so many films that focus on extremists of any type, makes the revolutionary group into something of a cult. The East House is run very much like a cult with all of the characters eating food that has been thrown out, doing trust exercises (in this case spin the bottle and bathing Sarah as a group activity), and compartmentalizing assignments to reduce the risk of operations getting botched.
That said, The East makes a vivid point in exploring the righteousness of extreme environmentalists. While many people might argue with their methods, the “eco terrorists” have a real indignation about real life and death issues that are neglected by the government and media. Their crusades are real and compelling and there is a realism to the way Sarah becomes intrigued enough to plausibly consider Benji’s cause worthwhile.
The most subtle and interesting aspect of The East is how Sarah essentially works for a company much like those that The East House’s residents are targeting. Sharon illustrates a complete indifference for human life; she does not make any attempt to save the lives of the McCabe executives because they are not her clients and it is more useful to her to turn over the perpetrators of the crime after the fact to get McCabe as clients than to prevent the crime from happening. Sharon’s indifference is matched by the indifference of the executives of the companies The East is targeting.
On the acting front, The East showcases well the talents of Alexander Skarsgard and Ellen Page. Skarsgard has a pretty impressive emotional range he presents on True Blood and he brings his a-game to The East. Ellen Page is fine, but she essentially replays her role from Mouth To Mouth (reviewed here!), so her fans will not see anything new in The East. Patricia Clarkson is suitably impressive as Sharon and given how educated but goofy many of her characters in recent films have been, that she can credibly pull off efficient and corporate proves she still has incredible range left to plumb.
The East is the first work I’ve seen with Brit Marling, who also co-wrote the film. Marling is adequate as Sarah, but the role does not require a lot of emotional range. As a result, the role of Sarah comes across as fairly flat (Hillary Baack’s Eve has more on-screen emotional range). In fact, Marling’s performance makes it seem like Sarah is not at all an impressive agent. She seems emotionally detached initially and as she gets to know The East without ever truly coming alive to present something emotionally complicated enough to make the viewer actually give a damn about Sarah. Marling is outshined by Ellen Page when Page is given the chance to rule near the film’s climax.
Beyond that, The East lacks nuance and subtlety. It is unlikely to convince those who do not already sympathize with the cause The East stands for. That makes it more of a failure than a success, but even hearing the message is uncommon these days, so the film has some merit.
For other works with Patricia Clarkson, be sure to visit my reviews of:
Friends With Benefits
Lars And The Real Girl
Six Feet Under
Frasier - Season Nine
Frasier - Season Eight
For other film reviews, please check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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