In 2012, I wrote a piece for a class entitled “Bad Apples Up on Top” that looked at trends in cinematic portrayals of corporations and wealth in the wake of the Great Recession. If I were to update that post in 2013, “The East” would definitely mandate the addition of a new paragraph. Along with films like “The Bling Ring,” “Arbitrage,” and even “The Purge,” writer/director Zal Batmanglij and co-writer/star Brit Marling tap into a growing sense of militarism towards the rich and powerful.
Marling’s Sarah infiltrates the titular anarchist group for the government, attempting to protect her firm’s corporate clients from The East’s attacks. She quickly finds that blurred lines are not just the things of scintillating Robin Thicke summer singles; moral complexities abound everywhere. Sarah quickly finds herself wondering if she’s working for the right side in this game – if such a side exists.
The East, as savage as their attacks might be, are not your average criminals. They want to hold executives’ feet to the fire and jolt them out of complicity, forcing them to feel the pain they inflict on others. Their jams are highly symbolic, coordinated by members of The East to send a powerful message to the corporations and the public as well.
While all this ambiguity and relativism is fascinating, “The East” is a film that is great at raising questions but not particularly good at answering them. Films don’t have to force-feed you their message, nor do they have to make them patently obvious. But Batmanglij and Marling should not have wasted their time bringing up issues they were not prepared to, or incapable of, resolving. If you don’t stand for anything, it’s entirely possible you could wind up standing for nothing.
“The East” poises itself for a killer finale, yet it brings up far more than it’s prepared to wrap up. As a result, the film feels like a bunch of stumper interview questions loosely wrangled together into a story. It’s interesting enough, but “The East” gives us fairly little new evidence with which to reinterpret these ethical quandaries. B /