Sarah (Marling), a former FBI agent, takes a job with a private agency and goes undercover to infiltrate the East, an anarchist collective which carries out attacks on misbehaving corporations. Attracted to their leader Benji (Skarskård), Sarah starts to sympathise with their cause.
Unusually, Brit Marling has come close to mainstream stardom by co-writing scripts for odd, attention-catching indie movies which give her good roles but aren’t just vanity trips. In Another Earth (with co-writer/director Mike Cahill) and Sound Of My Voice (with The East’s co-writer/director Zal Batmanglij), Marling uses science-fiction concepts to open contemporary wounds. Here, she ditches the sci-fi and tells a story which is perilously close to Point Break/The Fast And The Furious in its basic plot outline (undercover cop joins the rebels), but sets it in an only-just-exaggerated American nightmare drawn not from old-school headlines but the blogs and pranks and leaks of the current mediascape.
In a post-democratic America where espionage is contracted out to the private sector and law enforcement is handled by unaccountable corporations for their own ends, it’s almost too obvious that a feeling person like our heroine will side with the anarchists. The instances of corporate evil here, though horribly credible, are cartoonishly extreme, with Patricia Clarkson as a Disney villainess sending princess Brit out into new wave hobo jungles to hook up with masked raiders.
What’s missing is the complexity John Sayles brings to this sort of project, but Marling and Batmanglij do show that members of the East don’t always agree with each other on tactics, tend to go off on personal crusades and are aware of the cost of their estrangement from straight society. There are footnotes about how to live off perfectly good food that’s been thrown away, and good, engaged and engaging performances from Ellen Page and Toby Kebbell as subordinate Easterners. Marling and Alexander Skarsgård strike sparks, but the romance angle feels forced — Skarsgård’s charisma makes the East feel as much a cult
as a collective, but the film gives his character too easy a time of it, just as it shies away from the true repercussions of a key character’s actions.
Well-acted and suspenseful, with a great deal of editorial content, this feels a little awkward and earnest, and perhaps not angry enough.
Reviewed by Kim Newman