Directed by: Zal Batmanglij.
Written by: Zal Batmanglij & Brit Marling.
Starring: Brit Marling (Sarah), Alexander Skarsgård (Benji), Ellen Page (Izzy), Toby Kebbell (Doc), Shiloh Fernandez (Luca), Aldis Hodge (Thumbs), Danielle Macdonald (Tess), Hillary Baack (Eve), Patricia Clarkson (Sharon), Jason Ritter (Tim), Julia Ormond (Paige Williams), Billy Magnussen (Porty McCabe), Wilbur Fitzgerald (Robert McCabe), John Neisler (Rory Huston), Jamey Sheridan (Richard Cannon), Pamela Roylance (Diane Wisecarver).
Zal Batmanhlij and Brit Marling teamed up just last year to make the solid indie cult-drama Sound of My Voice – and the reteam again this year for The East. You could argue that both films are about cults, but the word doesn’t quite fit in The East – which is about an eco-terrorist group – although it certainly has some cult-like tendencies. Sound of My Voice showed its lack of budget – it was rough around the edges, and didn’t quite figure a satisfying way to end its story. The East obviously has a bigger budget – there are more recognizable actors in it, and it has a slicker look and feel to it. It also not quite as good as Sound of My Voice – and shares one of the former film’s key problems – the lack of a satisfying ending.
The movie stars Marling as Sarah – a former FBI agent who has left to work in the much more lucrative private sector. Her job entails being an undercover investigator working for a big firm on behalf of other big firms, to protect them from corporate espionage and other threats. One of the biggest threats right now is an eco-terrorist cell known as The East. It’s Sarah’s job to infiltrate the secretive group – which has done such a good job of being secretive, no one knows whether they actually exist or not. It doesn’t take Sarah all that long to track them down (because, I guess otherwise, you wouldn’t really have a movie). At first, she thinks they’re all just hippie lunatics – and strongly disagrees with their sometimes violent methods – but slowly, she comes to see their point of view. It doesn’t hurt that their leader is Benji, and is played by Alexander Skasgard.
The East is anchored on good performances by Marling – who is quietly building up an impressive resume in little seen films and Ellen Page, who plays Izzy, one of The East’s most enthusiastic believers – who at first, of course, hates Sarah. Also excellent in Patricia Clarkson as Sarah’s cut throat boss – who may be your stereotypical corporate monster, but Clarkson plays it well. I’m still not sure if Skarsgard was good or not in the movie – that may sound strange, but it’s true. He has an oddly vacant look about him in the movie – and he starts out looking like a stereotypical Charles Manson clone with the long hair and beard, but quickly changes into something more presentable. I cannot tell if he’s supposed to be some sort of soft spoken genius, or someone with mental problems. All that makes it an odd performance – but perhaps that was the effect they were shooting for.
The East is interesting without ever really becoming involving. The story proceeds down the path you think it will, and never really deviates from it. I did like the ambiguous way the movie sees the group at its core however – it clearly sympathizes with them (and the evil the corporations do in the film is all too plausible), but that doesn’t really make what they do any better. I wish that the movie had seen the corporations themselves with the same sort of ambiguity, instead of painting them as evil monsters. And I wish the filmmakers had a gutsier ending – the way they end The East makes it seems like they wanted to have their cake and eat it too.
In short, I admired the intent of The East more than I admired the actual execution of the film. It is by no means a bad film – it’s good in many ways, and at least keeps Batmanglij and his ongoing collaboration with Marling one to watch. But after Sound of My Voice, I expected a step forward for te duo – and I don’t really think The East is.