With “The East,” Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij stay within the “fringe group infiltration” subgenre they explored in 2011's “The Sound of My Voice,” but this time the results are more carefully plotted and the duo creates a more compelling dramatic arc. It is partially undone by stock characters and outcomes, but Marling and Batmanglij's brisk storytelling and fun twists keep “The East” from being a mere second draft of an earlier story.
Marling plays Jane, a former government agent now working at a for-profit boutique intelligence firm: It's the kind of hush-hush organization that major corporations hire when their patience with legal processes wears thin. Her boss (Patricia Clarkson) wants Jane to find and join The East, a more radical variation on Earth First! that recently befouled the home of an oil-and-gas CEO after a catastrophic oil spill. So Jane bleaches her hair, dons Birkenstocks and gets super-crunchy, superfast in order to blend in with the alt-radicals who don't mind killing to make a point.
Under her deep-cover pseudonym “Sarah,” Jane convinces the group, led by Benji (Alexander Skarsgard of “True Blood”) that she is one of them, and she soon finds herself wrapped up in a series of hits against shifty pharmaceutical firms and chemical companies run amok.
The members of The East are types rather than characters — only Toby Kebbell's Doc, a radicalized physician with nerve damage, registers as more than a sketch, and not even a capable actress like Ellen Page can make Izzy, a wayward daughter of a chemical executive, more than a pawn to be moved. Maybe it's the decaying home where The East holes up or maybe it's Skarsgard and his incessant brooding, but the group is slightly more convincing as a clutch of vampires than as a radical leftist action group.
But co-writers Batmanglij and Marling throw some sharp turns into the story, and Jane/Sarah's ability to improvise escape plans partially makes up for the shallow characterizations of The East and Jason Ritter's thankless job as Marling's boyfriend, who will inevitably feel left out and marginalized. What ultimately makes “The East” more compelling than “The Sound of My Voice” is that there are real stakes: Pollution and corporate malfeasance affect more people than the strange dealings of a small messianic cult. Marling is taking an unusual path in the business by writing and acting in unconventional mysteries, but the shorthand notations passing as characters in “The East” do not do justice to her obvious ambition.
— George Lang