The East (2013) / Drama-Thriller
MPAA rated: PG-13 for thematic elements, violence, some disturbing images, sexual content, partial nudity, and language
Running time: 116 min.
Cast: Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgard, Ellen Page, Patricia Clarkson, Jason Ritter, Toby Kebbell, Shiloh Fernandez, Aldis Hodge, Danielle Macdonald, Hillary Baack, Julia Ormond, Billy Magnusson
Director: Zal Batmanglij
Screenplay: Zal Batmanglij, Brit Marling
Review published June 10, 2013
The writer-director Zal Batmanglij and star-cowriter Brit Marling (Arbitrage) , join forces again after their indie breakthrough, The Sound of My Voice, with another provocative but deeply flawed thriller that delves into the anarchist movement in the United States with The East. Yet again, the protagonist infiltrates a small, secular group flying under the radar of society, but this time with a higher budget, better marketing and a bit more star power than the first effort. Reportedly, the duo had worked on the script for this film prior to The Sound of My Voice, which might explain some of the striking parallels.
The premise of The East is that there is a secret underground cell of eco-terrorists that do to the fat cats that run major corporations that which they are doing to people and the environment. If the head of an oil company causes an oil spill, those responsible will be greeted to find oil all through their own homes. A former FBI Agent named Sarah Moss (Marling) is recruited by a highly profitable private intelligence firm hired by these corporations to investigate these groups from the inside and gain intel to bring them down. Through a series of circumstances, Moss is led in to the radical anarchist crew known as 'The East' (as the sun rises in the East, it symbolizes the wakeup call they perform to the public on the deeds that corporations regularly cover up). However, the closer Moss gets into the circle of trust of this eco-terror family, the more confused she becomes as to where her allegiance lies, especially as she can't resist the dreamy eyes of their spiritual leader, Benji (Skarsgard, Battleship).
While the subject matter is the stuff that good films are made of, and the quality of the direction and acting are worthy of admiration, where The East fails is in the contrivances involved in the farfetched plotline and the unevenness in the thriller elements (such as a scene in which the cell dresses up to the nines to infiltrate a party for pharmaceutical bigwigs that would feel more at home in a Mission Impossible movie) that undermine what could have been a chilling and realistic story of corporations run amok. Unfortunately, by ditching the high ground in favor of not-especially-convincing theatrics, the potency of the film becomes diluted to the point where we're viewing the infiltration of these secret cell groups as a fantasy, and therefore don't buy many of their tactics and plausible enough to keep us on the same edge we'd be teetering on if we felt the authenticity through and through.
The fact that a steely, manipulative Patricia Clarkson (Friends with Benefits, Shutter Island) plays her boss and a soft-spoken, sensitive Alexander Skarsgard plays the leader of The East will probably tell you where the filmmakers think your sympathies should lie, despite his group employing tactics that some might consider reprehensible, even if their viewpoints are considered justified. As we come to get to know the mild-mannered hippie members of the cell, we're treated to such fun and sensual scenes as the tight-knit group solidifying their trust in each other by dressing in straitjackets and feeding one another, communal bathing in the local waterway, and playing 'spin the bottle' and asking for lingering hugs and sexy kisses.
Batmanglij definitely has the tools and the talent to pull off a very good drama, as evidenced from The East, but the the clumsy attempt to juggle between making the film educational, inspirational, emotional, as well as entertaining shows he's not quite deft enough to know the limitations of his premises just yet. In one scene, there is a character named Izzy (Page, To Rome with Love) who tries to bring down someone close to her whose company is involved in a major pollution scandal, but these moments don't ring as profound without anything to ground her character, and the way that this story thread evolves feels manufactured, which is evidenced by the lack of genuine emotion when the episode concludes in a traumatic way.
Batmanglij and Marling end up going for broke with their overcooked plot, once again reaching too far to try resonate with any sort of truthfulness that would change some minds in the audience on the rightness or wrongness on the struggle between corporations and human interests. While most will likely already be on the side of those who seek to put an end to corporate greed at the cost of the lives and wellbeing of innocents, the watered-down way that it is presented isn't likely to rouse many to seek activism. It's just a little too fantastic in execution earn our trust. Provocative drama but unconvincing thrills.
©2013 Vince Leo