Everyone’s had that thought when bad things happen to bad people: they deserved it. For instance, would anyone really feel sadness if some faulty wiring caused Kansas’ infamous Westboro Baptist Church to burn down? Probably not. It’s not that we’re hopeful these things will happen, but when they do, it’s hard not to feel like some type of poetic justice has been served. A similar public mindset exists on the discussion of supposed “eco-terrorists,” groups that target corporations and big oil businesses that don’t play by the rules. What these groups do is illegal, but when the actions of those companies have undoubtedly impacted us in a negative way, can we justify ignoring it?
That complex question is at the heart of “The East.” When the titular group breaks into an oil magnate’s home in the opening moments of the film and spreads oil all over his house in response to the dumping of untold amounts of oil in the ocean, one can’t help but feel conflicted. They are clearly breaking the law, but is their greater message important enough to overshadow that fact? There’s no easy answer to this question and it’s why the film, as silly as it can sometimes be, works, even if only slightly.
The East consists of a ragtag group of people who aim to attack a number of large corporations in the coming months. The leader is Benji (Alexander Skarsgard) and he runs the operation. With him are Izzy (Ellen Page), Luca (Shiloh Fernandez) and Sarah (Brit Marling), the latter of whom is actually an undercover operative from a private intelligence firm tasked with infiltrating the group and digging up enough information to eventually bring them down.
The film begins as one might expect, with Sarah eager to prove her worth to her firm and jump in the fray, but what she doesn’t expect is to find is a group of people she can actually connect with. She begins to understand why the East does what they do and quickly realizes that these aren’t bad people; they’re just people, with beliefs and opinions just like the rest of us, but unlike the rest of us, when they see something they consider unjust, they do something about it. One of the film’s greatest strengths is that, for the majority of its runtime, it treats its characters fairly. Despite some strange moments, the East isn’t treated like a group of deranged terrorists, but rather people with a passion, however misguided it may arguably be.
As the film goes along, Sarah begins to feel the emotional and mental confliction anyone would. She knows they’re doing wrong, but the wrong they’re doing is merely in the eyes of the law. The real question is, what is considered truly wrong? How can one define it when perceptions of it vary between different people? This internal battle rages inside Sarah and Marling does a wonderful job bringing it out. Her emotional cues are subtle, but you can feel the pang of uneasiness that lies just beneath her pleasant veneer. She embodies the complex feelings one can have towards issues like this that aren’t so black and white.
Where “The East” falters is in its lousy, anti-climactic ending that takes many of these difficult questions and answers them rather bluntly. The entire movie is spent exploring these characters and showing them as the complex human beings they are, only to scrap the idea in the end. It’s an all too common cinematic case of a screenplay that loses faith in itself. A movie with ideas, provocative questions and intelligent themes suddenly turns into your typical Hollywood thriller and the conflicting emotions you may feel of certain characters while watching suddenly turns to disgust with their actions, all confliction thrown out the window. It’s no longer a question of, is what they’re doing and the motivation behind it right or wrong? The answer becomes all too clear.
With a different ending, “The East” could have been something special. Instead, it’s merely a movie that teases you with the possibility of intellectualism before stripping itself of the notion entirely. Although the performances are good and the direction is competent, it’s ultimately the story and the themes that make or break it. In that regard, it’s like a giant crack in a car’s windshield. It still serves its purpose, but all you can see when look at it is its obvious flaw.
The East receives 3/5