Movie Review: The East (2013)


the east

by Alan F. Zundel

“The East” is a thoughtful and thought-provoking film, but lacks the emotional punch to make it fully satisfying. It prodded my brain more than my heart.

And yet it treats of a subject that does touch my heart: the moral dilemma of living in a society that is poisoning the planet. Jane Owen (Brit Marling), using the false name Sarah throughout the movie, infiltrates an eco-terrorist collective on behalf of a private intelligence firm working to protect industrial corporations and their executives.

The collective, known as the East for reasons I don’t remember being explained, is led by Benji (Alexander Skarsgård) and Izzy (Ellen Page), a young couple whose relationship is ambiguous. As Sarah begins to learn the reasons that motivate the group she begins to doubt her own loyalties, slowly going native as she becomes close to members of the group.

But even as she comes to sympathize with their cause, she still questions their methods. The East targets CEOs of “guilty” firms for punishment and retribution, in one case literally making them take their own medicine. When a member of the collective dies in one of its actions Sarah is torn, questioning both her previous life and the alternative offered by the East.

Sarah’s moral dilemma is the heart of the movie, and because it touches on concerns most of us share I was curious to see what she would do. The ending made sense but wasn’t preceded by any sense of emotional catharsis, feeling more like the solution of a puzzle than a wrenching change of life for her. But that was what should have been evoked: an emotional crisis strong enough to yank the audience out of habit and denial into some serious soul-searching.

One problem is that the members of the East are, most of them anyway, not fleshed out very fully, and so it was difficult to come to care about them as people rather than symbols. Skarsgård gives a sensitive performance, but his Benji functions more as a symbol of Sarah’s evolving perceptions of the group than a believable human being: first appearing wild and dangerous, then serious and thoughtful, and finally becoming her lover.

The usually reliable Ellen Page never comes alive on screen, leaving a key character underdeveloped. The one member of the group given room to breathe by the script was Doc (Toby Kebbell), who cared about the people around him as much as the cause he was fighting for.

Brit Marling is fine as Jane/Sarah, making good use of her eyes to indicate what she is thinking and feeling while hiding it from the other characters in the movie. I was a little bothered by how her hair was always well-groomed even while sleeping on the floor of a burnt-out building, but that did not detract too much from her credibility. (If anyone does a biopic of Paul McCartney, Marling MUST be cast as Linda Eastman—the resemblance is uncanny.)

Marling co-wrote the script with director Zal Batmanglij, who I never heard of before but has a really cool name. The writing and direction propel the story forward, leaning toward suspense rather than the character drama; Batmanglij knows how to tell a story but seemed unsure of how to plumb the depths of his theme.

Out here in Oregon there have been real environmental activists labelled as “terrorists,” and their stories are much more compelling than those of the characters in this movie. The real ones committed acts of industrial arson but took pains to avoid doing violence to people. It seemed facile to have the East step out of our dominant social values yet retain our reliance on violence against people to try to shape the world to their ends.

The moral questions swirling around cases such as that of Jeff Luers, originally sentenced to 22 years in prison for setting some trucks on fire at a car dealership, are so fascinating that the conflicts in the story of the East seem shallow in comparison. Radicals become radicals because they become convinced peaceful methods have failed—why and how they go through this transformation is barely touched on by “The East.”

In sum, if there is a choice between hurting people and doing nothing, yes, it is imperative to find another way. But that way of posing the question lets us off the hook. The real choice is between going on with life as usual or striking out for the unknown, because the way forward is not nearly as clear as the out offered to Sarah by the screenwriters.

Would that life were so simple.

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