"The East is an accomplished follow-up to Sound of my Voice, and this blossoming collaborative partnership is certainly one to keep an eye on in the future."

It was at Sundance 2011 that two new talents, writer-director Zal Batmanglij and writer-actress Brit Marling exploded onto the filmmaking world with Sound of my Voice. The East finds Batmanglij and Marling attempting to follow up that initial success with their second collaborative effort.

The film follows operative Sarah (Brit Marling) as she infiltrates The East, an anarchist group known for their attacks on corporations. Charged with gathering intelligence on the group’s upcoming covert operations Sarah finds herself questioning both her mission objectives and the extremes The East are willing to push towards to exert their brand of justice.  

The canvas Batmanglij and Marling are working on to craft their morally complex tale is balanced between an emotional sparseness and an emotional complexity. The emotion is controlled throughout, it’s expression exploited to expose the pain and scars that define the individuals that comprise The East. Batmanglij and Marling seem intent on avoiding a descent into emotional melodrama or just plain drama to create a compelling tale, Sarah’s romantic relationship notable for an emotional sparseness even in times of strain from her covert work.

From the outset The East presents itself as a conundrum. Sarah is presented as the central protagonist, yet from the outset she is not a wholly sympathetic protagonist. The film’s audience is forced to practice patience, as Sarah’s journey arch which takes her from antagonist to protagonist, becoming wholly sympathetic as she slowly discovers her own moral outrage, and begins to think for herself, trying to discover a middle ground if there is one between her corporate employers and the anarchist group.

Fully understanding the arch and destination of Sarah’s journey, a parallel journey is therein created for the audience in conjunction with the future protagonist’s journey, exploiting The East’s themes of conflicting lifestyle choices and ideologies through which we continue to grow and change. Sarah’s journey perhaps challenges C.G. Jung’s observation that as children we learn about the world around us and as adults we learn about ourselves, Sarah both learning about the world around and coming to perceive herself in a new light.

Exploring moral complexities, the act of retribution where government and legal systems fail to act, the ethical course of action to seek justice, the film morphs into a dream, Batmanglij and Marling lacking the courage to end with a sense of pessimism. But in hindsight I find myself wondering if the point raised by the ending questions the nature of activism, the difficulty in confronting corporations in a capitalist led world and the vital need for transparency. Nevertheless a few beats prior to the film’s actual end would have been the more courageous ending, embracing a certain ambiguity, though perhaps the ending is still ambiguous with an uncertainty of how events will transpire.

The East is a slow moving and methodical film, conceived and executed with a sense of deliberate and unwavering certainty with a set of compelling performances. The returning Ellen Page reminds why she is considered one of the young rising stars. Patricia Clarkson’s deliciously amoral villainess ushers in thematic reflections on the evil and amorality of the capitalist world. Alexander Skarsgård meanwhile comes close to stealing the film if it were not for Toby Kebbell’s enigmatic performance as Doc. It is a film of textured performances that add weight to the compelling and understated drama which invokes a sense of anger at men and women’s propensity for evil and disregard. Perhaps the anger the film invokes derives from the realisation that the shadows come from the light and whether you are in or out of the shadows is at best subjective. Evil men and women do not consider themselves evil. Either that or they have mastered ignorant bliss.

The East is an accomplished follow-up to Sound of my Voice, and this blossoming collaborative partnership is certainly one to keep an eye on in the future. Batmanglij and Marling’s overriding message perhaps echoes Nietzsche. “The whole gamut of good and evil is in every human being... Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.”