“Suspenseful, ludicrous, fascinating, and utterly unsubtle, Zal Batmanglij’s The East plays like an unholy mash-up of Martha Marcy May Marlene and Alias,” begins Logan Hill at Indiewire. “The film builds on the themes of cult and identity that Batmanglij and his star Brit Marling explored artfully in their breakout debut The Sound of My Voice. But here, that psychology is in service of a fast-paced espionage potboiler. As Sarah, Brit Marling plays a former FBI agent turned private security consultant who is paid to infiltrate a radical environmental group called The East. She more than confirms buzz that she will be one of film’s next major leading women, and she’s working with a strong set-up for a thriller, in a community that couldn’t be more relevant in the age of Occupy Wall Street, and which has lead to very mixed results on American screens (See: Battle in Seattle). There’s plenty to admire, but ultimately this thriller is as overheated as a radical’s rhetoric.”
Variety‘s Justin Chang: “After some harrowing detective work that establishes her confidence and quick reflexes in the field, Sarah makes her roundabout way to the East’s rundown headquarters, where, passing herself off as a like-minded runaway outlaw, she soon gets a taste of their radical beliefs and vaguely New Age collective habits. Regarded warily by Izzy (Ellen Page), the most fanatical of these young activists, Sarah finds herself especially intrigued by Benji (Alexander Skarsgard), the handsome, soft-spoken leader of the group, who eventually invites her to participate in one of their operations. These scenes constitute the film’s strongest and most arresting section… If the picture’s second half feels somewhat protracted en route to a sly and invigorating finish, the overall effect is that of a shrewd, crafty and highly commercial entertainment with just enough topical heft to keep it from feeling entirely escapist.”
“The actors bringing this band of anarchists to life project enough wounded, uncertain self-righteousness to distance them from the generic zealots more often seen in this kind of tale,” finds John DeFore, writing for the Hollywood Reporter, “and Marling, working behind a couple of layers of role-playing, keeps audiences guessing about what Sarah actually believes. Batmanglij balances emotional tension with practical danger nicely, a must in a story whose activist protagonists can make no distinction between the personal and the political.”
“Provocative and sharply crafted to the end, successfully bridging its star and director’s indie roots with their multiplex potential, The East maintains its intelligence, but arguably flexes it a little too eagerly,” suggests Guy Lodge at In Contention.
“There are some cool ideas here and it’s pretty damned entertaining for a studio action-thriller, however, it’s definitely no Sound of My Voice,” finds Ryland Aldrich at Twitch. It’s “a polished thriller that grows muddled and predictable,” agrees Tim Grierson in Screen. Jordan Hoffman at Film.com: “My number one takeaway from The East is annoyance—why did these two feel they needed to make their movie in this traditional way?” But at the Playlist, Cory Everett finds the film to be “thoroughly entertaining… stylish and sincere.”
Update: “After this movie is released by Fox Searchlight later this year, Batmanglij will surely be in line for a Bourne-type franchise if he wants one, though my guess is he doesn’t,” figures Zach Baron at Grantland. “He and Marling wrote the film together: They reminisce onstage about a research trip they took, three months on the road trying to buy nothing, dumpster-diving and train-hopping and making friends. The East feels pretty Hollywood, but you get the sense that wasn’t exactly their intention. Asked about Skarsgård, Batmanglij admits, ‘I didn’t know who he was’ before casting him. Skarsgård interjects, indignantly: ‘I didn’t know who you were either!'”
Update, 1/26: “While lacking some of the nuance that made Sound of My Voice so distinct, Marling and Batmanglij have managed to produce one of the most smartly written undercover thrillers in recent years,” finds Zeba Blay at the House Next Door. “The East doesn’t redefine the genre, but a strong cast, polished direction, and absorbing story make it an impressive effort nonetheless.”
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