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'The East' review - Dull eco-thriller suffers identity crisis

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Released on Thursday, Jun 27 2013

Director: Zal Batmanglij; Screenwriters: Zal Batmanglij, Brit Marling; Starring: Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgård, Ellen Page, Toby Kebbell; Running time: 116 mins; Certificate: 15


After exhibiting a great deal of promise as the star/co-writer of 2011's stellar Another Earth, Brit Marling comes crashing back down to the original earth with this disappointingly mundane mess. The East suffers from a critical identity crisis, squandering an initially intriguing premise to veer awkwardly between intimate character study and formulaic espionage thriller. It satisfies on neither count.

Marling portrays former FBI Agent Sarah Moss, who embarks on a new career working for a private intelligence firm that exists to protect the interests of various nefarious corporations. Sarah manages to infiltrate a group of straggly-haired anarchists known as 'The East', led by alluring mastermind Benji (Alexander Skarsgård), who plan to launch several attacks to expose the criminality and environmental damage caused by their nemeses. Can you work out what happens next? That's right, Sarah starts to find herself morally conflicted and torn between her employers and the tree-hugging folks she's supposed to incarcerate.

It's a bog-standard plot, but director Zal Batmanglij sucks us into the ambiguous world of eco-terrorism during the early stages of the movie, deftly incorporating emotive news footage of environmental disasters to remind us that the premise is both contemporary and real. While the foundations were laid well, the characterisation that follows is woefully inadequate.

There are too many startlingly unconvincing actions and decisions taken by Sarah, which ultimately alienate the viewer from having any concern about her fate. The daft manner in which she risks exposing herself to both the anarchist group, by very openly trying to prevent an incident while undercover at a drinks reception, is matched by the stupidity she displays while trying to persuade her boss that she is still a dedicated employee. An absurdly token romantic intrigue subplot also reeks of contrivance, where decisions are dictated by plot mechanics and not character.

For a compelling and credible depiction of a cult group who indulge in brainwashing, watch the stunning Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene instead. The damaged anarchists on display in The East, with the exception of the excellent Toby Kebbell's illness-afflicted doctor, all appear to be spoilt rich kids rebelling against their parents. This is very literal in the case of Ellen Page's sullen anarchist Izzy, who engineers a physical confrontation with her own corporate monster father.

Such scripting may lead to an admittedly tense moment of dramatic confrontation, but it seriously hampers any attempt at a thoughtful exploration about the motivations of the terrorists and whether their 'wrongs' make a legitimate 'right'. It's not about ethics, it's about daddy issues!

It's hard to fault the performances in The East, as the actors are given insufficient material to appear as much more than ciphers. The surface of a fascinating and resonant issue is barely scratched by a script that increasingly relegates characterisation in favour of drama, culminating in a hideously overfamiliar climax that leaves one wondering what the point of making this movie was.

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