Jane, an operative for the private intelligence firm Hiller Brood, is assigned by her boss Sharon to infiltrate The East, an underground activist, anarchist and ecologist organization that has launched several attacks against corporations in an attempt to expose their corruption. Calling herself Sarah, she joins local drifters in hitching rides on trains, and when one drifter, Luca, helps her escape from the police, she identifies the symbol of The East hanging from Luca's car mirror. Sarah self-inflicts an arm injury that she tells Luca was caused in the escape so he can get medical attention for her. He takes her to an abandoned house in the woods where members of The East live and one of the members, Doc, treats her cut.
Sarah is given two nights to recover before she must leave the squat. At an elaborate dinner involving straitjackets, Sarah is tested and fails. Exposing how selfishly she and many others live their lives. Sarah is caught one night when spying by the deaf Eve and has a conversation in sign language with her. Sarah tells Eve that she is an undercover agent and threatens Eve with jail if she stays with the group; Eve leaves the next morning. Sarah is recruited to fill the missing member's role on a "jam," which is an old fashioned term for a direct action. After seeing the effectiveness of the pharmaceutical jam, compounded by her growing attraction to charismatic Benji (Alexander Skarsgård), Sarah gradually questions the moral underpinnings of her undercover duty. Sarah reluctantly participates in The East's next jam and comes to learn that each member of The East has been personally damaged by corporate activities. For example, Doc has been poisoned by a fluoroquinolone antibiotic and his neurosystem is degenerating. The East infiltrates a fancy party for the senior executives of the pharmaceutical company responsible for Doc's poisoning and puts a strong dose of the risky antibiotic into everyone's champagne. The East announce this action via YouTube and over time one executive's mind and body begins to degenerate as a side effect of the antibiotic, revealing publicly the extreme risks of the drug.
Another East member, Izzy (Ellen Page) is the daughter of a petrochemical CEO. The group uses the father/daughter connection to gain intimate access to the CEO and forces him to bathe in the waterway he has been using as a toxic dumping ground. This jam goes wrong when security guards arrive and shoot Izzy in the back as she and the others flee. Back at the squat, because of his poisoning, Doc's hands tremble too much for him to perform surgery on Izzy. Sarah offers to do it for him and he tells her what to do. She manages to remove the bullet from Izzy's abdomen, but Izzy dies and is buried near The East's house.
Even though Sarah and Benji have grown closer and Sarah implores him to just disappear, he insists that they go together to complete the final jam. Sarah refuses at first but finally gives in and the two begin a long drive, during which Sarah falls asleep. When she awakens, she realizes that Benji is driving her to the Hiller Brood headquarters outside Washington, D.C. He reveals that he has always suspected her of being a Hiller Brood operative, and that Luca also thought this, but brought her in as a test. Benji wants Sarah to obtain a NOC list of Hiller Brood agents all over the world, which will be The East's third and final jam, to "watch" them. Having successfully obtained the NOC list using her cell phone's memory card, Sarah runs into Sharon in the hall. She confronts Sharon about the firm's activities, thus revealing her new allegiances. Sharon has Sarah's cellphone confiscated as she leaves the building. As Hiller Brood was sharing information about their activities with the FBI, The East's hideout is raided and Doc is arrested. He sacrifices himself to ensure the getaway of the remaining members. Sarah tells Benji she's failed to get the NOC list. Benji reveals he means to use the list to expose publicly all the Hiller Brood agents. Since they are undercover, however, it is likely they could be killed. Sarah chooses not to go on the run with Benji. She and Benji part at a truck-stop as Benji heads out of the country. In truth, Sarah has the NOC list (because it wasn't on her phone, she'd swallowed the memory card instead). It is clear that her time undercover with The East has changed her. The film ends with an epilogue of her personally contacting her former coworkers (those undercover) and attempting to demonstrate what nefarious corporate crimes Hiller Brood clients want to protect. She hopes to change each operative's mind about their undercover activities and perhaps join her in ecological activism. She is paying tribute to the things The East believes in and attempting to make a difference in her own way, without causing harm to anyone.
The East is directed by Zal Batmanglij. He co-wrote the screenplay with Brit Marling, who also stars in the film. Batmanglij and Marling also wrote the screenplay for Sound of My Voice and went to Los Angeles in 2009 to produce a film. Due to the economy, they could not make the film that year. They were then inspired by the concept of Buy Nothing Day, an international day of protest against consumerism, and decided to experience a Buy Nothing summer. They spent two months in 2009 with proponents of freeganism, which is a practice of eating "discarded food in their pursuit of a moneyless existence". Marling said, "We wanted to have some adventure, and we didn't have any money. We learned to hop trains, we learned to sleep on rooftops, we learned to claim the space that feels so private. We joined this anarchist collective." The pair drew from their experiences as well as thriller films like All The President's Men, The Bourne Identity and Michael Clayton to craft The East, which they wrote before they began filming Sound of My Voice for a 2011 release.
Batmanglij and Marling wrote to have the anarchist organization target a multinational corporation instead of a government. Marling said, "Multinational corporations are outside of the purview of any nation-state. These are the entities that are shaping and running the world... The modern anarchy movement is about rebelling against the corporate structure." Batmanglij said the film focused on the pharmaceutical industry due to the writers hearing stories about the side effects of drugs, such as a drug to help quit smoking that resulted in some people committing suicide. He said they considered focusing on banks due to the financial crisis of 2007–2008, but they chose the pharmaceutical industry so the mission in the film would have emotional resonance. They titled the film The East to make a variety of references. The director explained, "'The East' is ... the East Coast, which is like something in our American collective consciousness—New England, tony, center of power. The Wicked Witch of the East in the Oz mythology was the bad witch because the book was about how the Midwest was getting screwed over by the east, by Washington. And then of course we have the Middle East or the Far East, which is seen as different or other. The ultimate Other. So, it's funny that this word means two things, and I thought that was an interesting name for a resistance group that is combined of kids from New England who want to make themselves the Other."
Sound of My Voice, directed by Batmanglij and starring Marling, screened at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival in January. Producer Michael Costigan, who liked Sound of My Voice, got a copy of the screenplay for The East. Costigan liked the screenplay and approached Batmanglij to say that he and his fellow producers Ridley Scott and Tony Scott at Scott Free Productions were interested in making the film. After the festival, Fox Searchlight Pictures acquired distribution rights for Sound of My Voice and Another Earth (also starring Marling). In the process, the distributor greenlighted production of The East. By September 2011, Marling and Alexander Skarsgård were cast in the starring roles. Felicity Jones was attached to play Izzy, but she dropped out to promote Like Crazy. Jones was replaced by Ellen Page.
Production of the film, which had a budget of $6.5 million, took place in Shreveport, Louisiana. Production designer Alex DiGerlando converted an alternative lifestyle club in Shreveport into a house for The East. The club was originally painted black and gold, and it was repainted different shades of green for the film. Filming took place in late 2011; Batmanglij said it lasted 26 days.
The director compared the film's ambivalent ending to the one in the 2002 film 25th Hour: "I feel like it's almost as if the film’s events never happened at its end... It's sort of like what we're all capable of if we put our minds to it. There's a lot of work that needs to be done in order to make changes, even for her to make changes."
The film premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival on January 20, 2013. The Sundance Institute, as part of their Sundance Film Festival USA program, screened The East at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, Michigan on January 31, 2013. Over 1,300 people were in attendance for the screening, and Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling showed for a Q&A session. Leading up to its theatrical release in May 2013, The East was chosen as the closing night film of the South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Conference and Festival, and went on to screen at the Phoenix Film Festival, Seattle International Film Festival, and the San Francisco International Film Festival. The Washington Post reported that Q&A sessions after the film's screenings were popular. It said, "Filmgoers might not have agreed on their feelings about 'The East,' but they had one thing in common: They needed to talk about it." According to Batmanglij, the Sundance screening retained 98% of the audience for its Q&A session.
The East had its New York City premiere on May 20, 2013. It was released in four theaters in Los Angeles and New York City on May 31, 2013. The film grossed $77,031 over the opening weekend, a theater average of $19,258. Indiewire reported, "That's a strong number in general and also a big step up from Batmanglij and Marling's previous collaboration." TheWrap said the film had a strong start, while Box Office Mojo said it "opened to modest results". In its second weekend, the release was expanded to 41 theaters. It grossed $228,561 over the weekend. Overall, it grossed $2.4 million.
The Wall Street Journal reported that at the Sundance Film Festival, the film "opened to mostly strong reviews". Variety's Justin Chang reviewed the film, "This clever, involving spy drama builds to a terrific level of intrigue before losing some steam in its second half." He noted that, "the appreciable growth in filmmaking confidence here should translate into a fine return on Fox Searchlight's investment". John DeFore, writing for The Hollywood Reporter, described The East as "a social-conscience espionage film that has actually thought about its 'eco-terrorism' themes beyond figuring out how to mine them for suspense". He said, "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." Joe Neumaier of the New York Daily News gave The East 5 stars and highlighted it as a Sundance standout. He said the film felt like a "sophisticated" Earth First! take of The Parallax View and other 1970s films with the theme of paranoia.
Logan Hill, reviewing for indieWire, said, "Fast-paced and energetic, 'The East' hits a beat and hurries along to the next 'Jam.' As slickly paced as a big-studio espionage movie, it nearly succeeds as a pure adrenaline-rush thriller. In the end, the problem isn't that there's too much plot, but rather a certain dramatic illogic." Hill commended the cast and said of the direction, "Batmanglij has a particular talent for capturing that unmoored, twentysomething search for meaning, and the tight-knit allure of a group that offers a reason for living. But the film is so plot-driven, those don't have much room to breathe."
Following the film's release in May, the film review aggregation website Metacritic surveyed 36 critics and assessed 26 reviews to be positive, 9 to be mixed, and 1 to be negative. It gave an aggregate score of 68 out of 100, which it said indicated "generally favorable reviews". Another review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes surveyed 140 critics and, categorizing the reviews as positive or negative, assessed 103 as positive and 37 as negative. It gave the film a score of 74% and summarized the critical consensus, "Tense, thoughtful, and deftly paced, The East is a political thriller that never loses sight of the human element."
The East was released on DVD and Blu-ray Disc in the United States on September 17, 2013 and in the UK on November 5, 2013.