Craig's First Take: "The East"

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An operative for an elite private intelligence firm finds her priorities changing dramatically after she is tasked with infiltrating an anarchist group known for executing covert attacks upon major corporations.
3.5

Who hasn’t wanted to punch a BP executive in the face whenever one of those “we’re committed to cleaning up the gulf” commercials come on? It’s a scary world when a corporation doesn’t have to show it’s being accountable until after the damage has already been done and it’s equally shameful how true it feels that a group like “The East” would have to conduct synchronized attacks, in order to bring some of these corporate criminals to the world’s attention.

They are a fringe group dedicated to righting the wrongs caused by corporations. Have an oil spill in the middle of the ocean-expect to find your expensive house dripping with the stuff when you get back from the Hamptons, release a pharmaceutical that hasn’t been properly tested-expect to be slipped the same drug and deal with the threatening side effects. This type of terrorism is apparently being fought by private security companies, where power-hungry, nothing-else-matters-but-the-money people like Sharon (Patricia Clarkson, maybe the most heartless villain we’ve seen all summer) are hiring agents like Sarah (Brit Marling) to infiltrate to help out their scared corporate clients.

Sarah is a resourceful, capable woman who soon finds herself deep undercover in a cult located in a cabin in the woods. They are led by William (Alexander Skaarsgard) and Izzy (Ellen Page). Thankfully they are not the pot-smoking, hackey-sack playing kind of Earthy stereotypes but actually more of an army with a doctor (well, a former medical student), a proficient computer hacker, and a plan of attack.

“The East” is the brain child of Marling and director Zal Batmanglij (really cool name), who previously worked together on “Sound of My Voice”, a film I haven’t seen but know was named one of the top indie films by festivals in 2011. Their second feature together is generic and somewhat slowly paced. Sarah predictably finds empathy for her cult friends, while corporations are nothing more than money-hungry suits. But before you write it off completely, it’s hard not to respect where this film is aiming its focus, or not be compelled by the villains-on-both-sides approach, or not feel the suspense like when the cult goes after the Execs of a pharmaceutical company. There are also some eccentric touches here, like the cult’s dynamic of trust, washing each other, and playing spin the bottle, that do hold some interest.

Marling, who has won nominations from Independent film awards for her performances in both “Sound of My Voice” and another film she had a hand in writing called “Another Earth”, does a fine job of balancing Sarah’s career and the unexpected feelings that arise from working the case. Skarsgaard brings an intense focus to William while Ellen Page’s moody intellectualism just seems like a right fit. Clarkson steals the show though as Sarah’s boss.

Could it have been better? Yes. But it also offers some thrills and something to think about.