Things are getting ugly out there. At least, it surely appears that way. A professor of mine once spoke of a particular disease we have all acquired, a sickness derived from a substantial loss of faith and trust in government, the church, and the medical system. There is definitely truth to his words, yet such a concept must go even further. These three aforementioned pieces of society that influence our lives more than any other, we feel, have failed us and consequently, we’ve failed ourselves, only we know not exactly how because it has been too long since we really gave a damn, it’s hard to pinpoint where exactly we went so horribly off track.
As a result of this diminishment, a disjointedness has formed, the sort of continuous behavior that shucks the idea of a mass community of beings, a real, combined acknowledgement of our species as a whole. From this we’ve found ourselves feeling an almost collective despondency about the state of the world, a despondency that could, if we keep at it, cement our place in the deep, grimy pit we’ve already found ourselves and despair will triumph.
Director Zal Batmanglij's The East, named for the anarchist group at its center, seems to recognize such a pit exists. Its characters, the members of said group: Benji (Alexander Skarsgard), Izzy (Ellen Page), Doc (Toby Kebbell) and others, work to dismantle it, with intelligent firm operative Sarah Moss (Brit Marling) trying to thwart their attacks by acting as one of them.
Problems with The East partially come from its weak, somewhat bland screenplay and partially from uninvolving performances. The script, penned by Zal Batmanglij and Marling, begins on the right foot, establishing a strong protagonist in Sarah, and paints The East as a durable, organized, interesting and mysterious force to be reckoned with. Despite this, the eventual meeting of the group is a letdown. Everyone looks like an indistinctive, lost soul who has not had a real bath in months. They conduct themselves exactly like you would think an anarchist group would. Suffice to say, there aren’t many surprises to them.
For most of the picture, Skarsgard and Page give these droopy-eyed, sluggish, weary line deliveries that render them unexciting to watch or listen to and a large portion of screen time is spent on them. It is not until The East gets closer to their final attack or “jam” as it is referred to in the film, that Izzy and Benji, start to emerge as passionate individuals with gloomy pasts. Though the movie’s watchability is really achieved through Marling’s affective performance as Sarah, who comes to see the good and the bad of two very different points on the societal spectrum: a change-thirsty, clever group and the government agencies and firms trying to stop them.
What The East amounts to is a watered-down, truncated, and at times, silly version of a better movie. The injustices covered are about as topical as you can get. The ugly, glaring issues in the world, it points a huge finger at, are devastatingly real and in need of greater acknowledgement, and some kind of action; they just need a more commanding movie to express that. The East means well and at least it calls attention to concepts most mainstream fare tends to avoid; but it never fleshes out its ideas and the majority of characters enough to yield the true or lasting impact the filmmakers appear to have been aiming for. The issues the film addresses affect everyone and The East ultimately feels like it is working on a small scale, instead of the larger one it should be.