The East (2013) raises some serious issues. It asks questions about the very real problem of corporate corruption facing the world outside the film and it explores the difficulties facing individuals who would combat this corruption. In short, it asks questions for which there are ultimately no easy answers. To that end, when addressing complex issues that have real world ramifications in a film, it’s vital that any solutions offered be practical, lest the filmmakers risk writing off the issues in a moment of cinematic wish fulfillment and thereby send the audience back into the world feeling as though the problem has been resolved. For a film like The East to be most effective, then, it really has to provide workable solutions or no solutions at all, and this is where I take issue with the film.
It stars Brit Marling (who co-wrote the film along with director Zal Batmanglij) as Sarah, a corporate spy tasked with infiltrating “The East,” a group of anarchists who have pledged to orchestrate elaborate attacks on five major corporations in retaliation for their unchecked crimes against nature and humanity. Once welcomed into their ranks, however, Sarah’s world view is challenged by the devastation of corporate corruption she witnesses first hand and by the alternative lifestyle offered by those in The East. Problematically for Sarah, though, the anti-corporate actions of The East become ever more violent. And in this, the film forces us to consider whether or not there is a viable, peaceful solution to the problem of corporate corruption when this corruption is so pervasive in our society.
This is obviously a complex issue that requires an equally complex solution, and left unresolved in the film, the questions it raises could potentially have a powerful impact on viewers as presented, were it not for the film’s tidy resolution. (Spoiler alert!) Marling and Batmanglij reveal in the film’s closing moments that the answer to corporate corruption is a consortium of corporate spies with the ability to leak sensitive information about the corporations’ more ethically-questionable activities. Thus the film ends happily and the solution to the problem turned out to be a simple one after all, except of course that it’s totally unworkable and, more problematically, it insinuates that the average citizen can affect no change in the system. So why bother, right? Now I surmise that this is hardly the message Marling and Batmanglij were trying to convey when they wrote The East, but it’s there.
As a result, I find it hard to wholeheartedly recommend the film. It’s otherwise beautifully-shot, well-acted (the film co-stars Alexander Skarsgård, Ellen Page and Patricia Clarkson) and tonally rich and consistent throughout. But for me, the last-minute muddling of these extremely important themes is something of a deal-breaker where rewatchability is concerned. Still, the questions the film poses are indeed important ones, and for that alone I’d say it’s worth a look.
The East is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment and the release is packaged with some half dozen short featurettes that further explore these themes even as they address the making of the film.