Co-written by lead actress Brit Marling and director Zal Batmanglij, "The East" instantly brings to mind the recent Marling-penned indies "Another Earth " (2011), directed by Mike Cahill and "Sound of My Voice" (2012), which Batmanglij directed; like those earlier films, "The East" prizes an initial air of mystery over consistent drama, and as a result ends up squandering its intriguing premise.
Marling plays Jane, a former FBI agent who left the Bureau to work in the private sector. Jane's boss (Patricia Clarkson) assigns her to find and monitor The East, a reclusive anarchist cell whose symbolic stunts have attracted media attention to corporate wrongdoing. After telling her live-in boyfriend that she's been given an assignment in Dubai, Jane bleaches her hair, puts on a hoodie and Birkenstocks, and adopts the cover identity of one "Sarah Moss," an office drone turned train-hopping crust punk.
After a run-in with railroad police exposes her original lead as an undercover Fed, Jane becomes convinced that she's hit a dead end. However, while calling back to report to her employers that the mission has been a bust, Jane spots a compass talisman that suggests that one of her travelling companions knows more about The East than he's letting on. On the spur of the moment, Jane gashes her forearm open with a soda can; the ploy works, and soon she's taken to get stitches at The East's compound, a dilapidated mansion in the woods of Pennsylvania.
There Jane meets the core members of the group: intense, zealot-like Izzie (Ellen Page); good-hearted, mascara-wearing Luca (Shiloh Fernandez); team medic Doc (Toby Kebbell); deaf, friendly Eve (Hillary Baack); den mother and expert hacker Tess (Danielle Macdonald); and their charismatic de facto leader, Benji (Alexander Skarsgård). After a member of the team abruptly leaves, new arrival Jane is roped into their latest "jam" — a plot to exact revenge on a pharmaceutical company.
The rest of the film finds Jane shuttling back and forth between The East's mansion and her home in Washington, D.C. The structure suggests slow indoctrination, but Marling's writing and acting are so opaque that her character's decisions come off as completely arbitrary. She excels at expressing guarded determination, but seems incapable of expressing doubt, which robs Jane — and the movie — of any sense of dramatic urgency. Lacking depth or motivation, she is more plot device than protagonist.
However, Jane is a Dostoevsky character compared to the members of The East. The movie essentially cancels out its anti-corporate message by falling back on conservative clichés about activism — namely, the idea that activists are all just rich kids angry at their parents. Insultingly, "The East" treats this "revelation" as if it were an additional layer of depth — that is, not only are The East activists, but they're activists struggling against their own friends and families! By rooting, for example, Izzie's struggle for clean water in daddy issues, "The East" effectively divorces itself from any discussions of the environment or corporate responsibility. It ceases to be a movie about activism, and becomes a movie about slumming brats; as a result, all of its third-act discussions of activist ethics — that is, where one should draw the lines for a cause — are meaningless.
Jane and Benji's mutual attraction begins as a suggestive thread, but by the fifth time the camera lingers on Benji while Jane looks at him, it becomes tiresome. Their relationship — like the film's characters and politics — seems arbitrary; like Jane herself, it at first seems to have mysterious motivations but in the end comes across as completely unmotivated.
The only character in the film who appears to have any kind of life to him is Toby Kebbell's Doc, a Stanford-trained former aid worker who suffers from Parkinson's-like symptoms. Doc is as underwritten as all of the movie's other characters, but Kebbell invests him with a sense of humanity; he manages to communicate more about what it means to be trapped in a morally tricky situation with a single subtle change in his facial expression than Marling does over the course of the whole movie.
Without much in the way of characterization or a cogent political position, all that's left for "The East" is its plotting. While the first 30 or so minutes have an effective terseness and a clippy pace, the movie eventually begins to seem stuck in a rut; its plot is trapped by its unwillingness to develop themes and characters past a basic outline.
Batmanglij and Marling continually circle back to the same points. However, there are only so many times that a movie can reiterate that corporations are bad and that being part of a group is complicated. As a result, it feels evasive; the ending — which is meant to represent a breakthrough for Jane's character — instead comes across as yet another meaningless cop-out. "The East" takes a facile approach to a complicated subject; whenever the movie seems on the verge of becoming morally complex, it deflates itself with clichés and meandering vagueness.