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Arts Rancho Santa Fe

FIlm review: ‘The East’ is engaging thriller

Thought provoking and topical, “The East” blends emotional tension and suspense to create an absorbing thriller that also manages to be socially conscious without being preachy. 

Sarah Moss (Brit Marling), an operative for the private intelligence firm Hiller Brood, is tasked with infiltrating an anarchist group called The East to protect her corporate clients’ interests. Once she convinces the members of her willing participation and gains the trust of their leader Benji (Alexander Skarsgård), she begins gathering intel for her superiors.

As time goes by, however, Sarah finds herself connecting with Benji, even as she accompanies him and the group on their next action or “jam” against several additional targets. The more she spends time living with these vigilantes, the more she questions the moral foundations of her priorities.

Whoever is in the mood for a polished adrenaline rush will get their money’s worth out of “The East”. The pacing is vigilant but quick, proceeding to the next “jam” without delay. Also, the suspense never diminishes as the story progresses, especially as Sarah must remain aware of the danger around her and the stakes she faces while on assignment.

Wherever she turns, her goals are met with unrelenting tension and surprise, both of which create an energetic “on-edge” feeling that keeps the audience engrossed in the film. Even better, we cannot help but be captivated by her steady realization that her two worlds aren’t all they appear to be. Yes, I must say, the journey that Sarah undertakes gives “The East” an emotional resonance that transcends the somewhat (but not quite) mainstream plot mechanics.

For those seeking more than just entertainment, I am pleased to announce “The East” contains plenty of food for thought relevant to the times we live in. Intrigue transforms into commentary as seen in the tug-of-war conflict between the private agency and the anarchist collective, with the corporate activities as the target of both. Whether you are familiar with such real-world topics or not, you won’t walk away once the credits start rolling without taking a moment to think about the big questions posed by the film.

What I enjoyed most about “The East” was its ability to not force moviegoers to choose sides over the social issues it presented. Addressing the bigger picture is good, but reaching your own conclusions about it is even better; that sense of purpose is Sarah’s (and ours) to discover, and I appreciate the humility behind it.

As much as “The East” is an espionage thriller, whatever genre patterns I might have detected were swept away by the riveting cast performances. Had the actors not created characters every bit as fascinating as the narrative’s subject matter, “The East” would have never reached its maximum potential, and its plot would now be without a soul to guide it.

Speaking of actors, I applaud director Zal Batmanglij for assembling one of the finest casts I’ve seen this year. Not a single person is as simple as the audience presumes him or her to be at the start; the cast members do an excellent job of tapping into those shades that make their characters very human and relatable.

Brit Marling delivers what is easily her best performance so far, embodying Sarah’s resourcefulness and growing uncertainty as she comes to realize the ethical ambiguities of her personal life. It also helps to have her as one of the screenwriters; she, along with Batmanglij, put a lot of effort into ensuring the dialogue and character interactions were spot-on.

Alexander Skarsgård succeeds in conveying Benji’s multifaceted leadership qualities without favoring one side over the other. I cannot tell you how I impressed I was at seeing him contrasting his affection for his fellow activists with his hatred of the corporate sector’s crimes. Also worth watching is Ellen Page, who brings a melancholy sympathy to the pent-up anger her Izzy expresses toward The East’s targets.

If you ever get the chance to see “The East” in theaters, I insist you do so. It is not only an exciting thriller guaranteed to satisfy your desire for entertainment, but also a humble self-reflection on topics worth pondering.

MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, violence, some disturbing images, sexual content and partial nudity.

Running time: 1 hour and 56 minutes

Playing: AMC La Jolla 12


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