Remember the angsty, high school teens with wealthy parents that gave them everything they could've ever wanted in life, but who rebelled anyways just to make things difficult? They're all grown up and starring in The East, director Zal Batmanglij and actor/writer Brit Marling's second collaboration (Sound of My Voice).
Marling stars as Sarah, an FBI agent turned operative for a private intelligence firm contracted by corporate bigwigs for protection. Sarah's no-nonsense boss, Sharon (Patricia Clarkson), fingers her as the operative to trust in infiltrating and bringing down the eco-terrorist group The East, known for targeting the heads of companies rather than the little guys.
While her boyfriend (Jason Ritter) sits at home thinking she's on an extended stay in a foreign country, Sarah is somewhere across town falling ass backwards into meeting Luca (Shiloh Fernandez), a member of The East. Sarah intentionally slices her wrist, leading Luca to bring her to a rundown property in the woods where The East has been squatting so that she can be provided with medical attention. There she's tended to by Doc (Toby Kebbell) before meeting the loose cannon of the bunch, Izzy (Ellen Page) and the unofficial leader Benji (Alexander Skarsgård).
Within mere hours of being brought into The East's cult-like lifestyle, Sarah is made by one of the group's members, but finagles her way out of trouble. She slowly gains their trust, joining in on "jams" (The East's politer term for attacks), the first of which is a plot to drug top officials of a pharmaceutical company with the company’s new, supposedly safe medication. Sarah's conflicted about helping their cause, but she's tasked with playing the waiting game until the bureau pulls the trigger on making arrests.
The success of The East hinges on Batmanglij and Marling, who co-wrote the screenplay, accomplishing two points: making the eco-terrorists and their actions morally ambiguous enough that we find ourselves empathizing with them, and keeping up the intrigue of the mostly unique premise. By and large they fail on both accounts.
With Sarah as our surrogate, Batmanglij and Marling aim to show that the offbeat lifestyle of the freeganism-abiding, anarchist hippies known as The East are rebelling with good intentions. And as Sarah becomes more accustomed to their ways, we are supposed to realize their lifestyle would only be considered "offbeat" because we as a society are uncomfortable with what we're not used to. But it's actually the more we learn about members of The East that distances us from them further. Benji and Izzy both come from wealthy upbringings, choosing to lash out seemingly because of their daddy issues more than any wrongdoing from society. Doc — the only other East member worth naming — is at least identifiable, but the story of what drives him to eco-terrorism is played as a reveal when there's nothing at all surprising about it.
Whether it's the writing or the acting (so either way, the blame falls on Marling), Sarah is just as unlikeable. At the film's beginning, Sharon's only real advice to Sarah is to not let herself become weak. So the first thing Sarah does is become weak, quickly making it known that she was the worst possible person to trust in bringing down The East. Sarah's incompetence naturally makes her less credible, and worse, less worthy of being rooted for. Just as soon as she earns The East's trust, she becomes chummy with all of its members, and acquires a soft spot for Benji because he's charming and charismatic. Attractive characters couldn't possibly go an entire film without sexual tension, no matter how important it is for both parties to not let emotions cloud their judgment.
At first edgy and daring, The East falls back on contrived plot points and character arcs until things come full circle with an ending so fairy tale and cookie cutter that I could've swore it came from a different film. Not even my undying infatuation with Ellen Page could save The East from itself and those troubled young adult anarchists with all their inheritance money. Talk about first world problems.