Matt Oakes’s review published on Letterboxd:
The East is neither the first movie about an undercover mole infiltrating an enemy organization, learning the universal worth of their dogma and falling for their leader nor will it be the last. Nonetheless, it's commendable for its throbbing sense of stakes even in light of the searing self-righteous aplomb beating you over the head at every turn.
However young and fragile she may seem, Sarah (Brit Marling) is a daring security firm agent intent on going deep-cover with an eco-terrorist organization known only as The East whose retaliatory exploits against corporate CEOs have been heavily featured in the media. Cloaked in ragged hipster gear, strapped into Birkenstocks but still smelling of soap, Sarah tries to earn credibility within the rungs of the alternative ragamuffins she's taken up camp with.
Eventually, she winds up playing wingman to a rare East member and, after slashing herself with a can of coke, is taken to The East's headquarters to witness their unconventional ways and seemingly violent credo. She immediately forms a bond with their passive but firm leader Benji, played by Alexander Skarsgård (True Blood). To the members of The East, the acts they commit are not terrorism so much as a lesson. They live by the tenants of Hammurabi's Code: an eye for an eye.
Those who dump oil into the ocean will have oil dumped into their homes. Those who intentionally distribute prescription drugs with devastating side effects will be force-fed those same drugs. Those who operate plants that knowingly poison the local water supply will be forced to bathe in that water. It's a harsh comeuppance but the organization sees it as a necessary evil to get the world back on track. Toby Kebbell stands out from amongst the cast and acts as the emotional fulcrum, particularly when he recounts the story of his sister's passing at the hands of an irresponsible pharmaceutical corporation. In time, Sarah begins to see the world through their eyes and is torn between the responsibilities of her past life and her newfound kinship with The East.
As individual elements, the characters work great but there's a flatness between the two leads that you can't quite put your finger on. Skarsgård is captivating and Marling manages to juggle the duality of her character with ease but their chemistry feels a little forced. Rather than an organic connection, this supposedly unexpected relationship was exactly the opposite. It felt like a fore-drawn conclusion created within a script rather than a natural character progression.
Somewhere between the center and the outskirts of the story is Ellen Page (Inception, Juno) whose role was an undeniable letdown. Her character plays the nonsensical narrative scapegoat with her alliances and motivations shifting on a dime. Chop her into two and she wouldn't be this lumped together, confused amalgamation.
However nonchalantly you interpret the corporate threat to our world lingering within the film, the brazen political positioning is sure to make you feel something, forcing you to shimmy to one side or the other depending on the presumptions you enter the theater with and your willingness to engage with the material presented.
As such, The East is an interactive experience demanding viewers to take a stance and wrestle with it throughout. But buried in all this palpable, self-serious introspection, there is a fun spy thriller that breathes life, stakes and momentum into the piece allowing it to be more than just a downtrodden and pedantic procedural.
The jury is out as to whether this thinly masked political subterfuge will be effective as catalyzing filmmaking but you have to respect Zal Batmanglij for trying. Too often, movies don't bother with a message or their agenda is too broadly painted to be definitively interpretable and thus meaningful. Batmanglij though broadcasts his eco-friendly stance here even more so than James Cameron with Avatar. Lobbing stink bombs at corporations may seem like a fruitless undertaking, especially under the auspices of Fox Searchlight, but at least Batmanglij is taking a step in the right direction.
As a thriller, The East has an extraordinary first and second act but is jarringly interrupted and the hard-earned edge-of-your-seat involvement spills over like a glass of milk. As a lesson in morality and escalation, the lines seem a little more blurred. This is clearly wishful thinking. As the film builds to climaxes of shifty moral ambiguities, its self-serious nature takes precedence over the sheer uninhibited fun set lose in the thriller components and limits it from reaching heights within its grasp.