Starring: Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgard, Ellen Page, Toby Kebbell, Shiloh Fernandez, Aldis Hodge, Danielle Macdonald, Hillary Baack, Patricia Clarkson, Jason Ritter, Julia Ormond, Billy Magnussen, Wilbur Fitzgerald.
Director: Zal Batmanglij
Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, violence, some disturbing images, sexual content and partial nudity.)
Running Time: 116 Minutes
Release Date: May 31, 2013
Scott Free Productions and Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Written by: Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling.
The 2011 Oscar-nominated documentary If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front introduced people to the ELF, the activist organization branded as the first ever domestic eco-terrorists by President George W. Bush in March 2001. Amidst that stunning documentary, a few themes continually came to mind with regard to their efforts: how much is too much? At what point does the action or protest committed become so verbose and over-the-top that your message is drowned out completely and you are viewed as nothing more than a troublemaker than an advocate for social change?
While not directly correlated to the ELF, The East depicts the machinations and inner workings of a similar faction of eco-activists who feel that they are untouchable and believe their escalating high profile actions get people talking and spark the push for change. Led by an enigmatic leader known as Benji (Alexander Skarsgard), the group is a hodge-podge of individuals from different backgrounds who, for their own specific reasons, wish to write the wrongs of a corporate-led society they view as out of control and ruthless to mankind.
After the group, dubbed The East, pump gallons of oil into the mansion of a wealthy oil executive, whose own company’s malfeasance led to tens of millions of dollars of destruction and pollution to a coastal community, corporate defense firm Hiller Brood send in one of their top investigators, Jane (Brit Marling). Her job is simple. Go undercover and infiltrate The East serving as a mole. Adopting the new name of Sarah, the young corporate spy works her way through various connections until she rather unexpectedly finds herself befriending an East member. Blindfolded and led to a house in the woods, she slowly and methodically gains acceptance, first winning over a drug-addled doctor known as Doc (Toby Kebbell) and eventually the true heart of the group, Izzy (Ellen Page).
As Sarah, Jane becomes a far different person than even she was aware she could become. Jane lives a quiet, domesticated life with her long-time boyfriend Tim (Jason Ritter). But her undercover work allows her to transform into a freegan and anti-consumerist, appearing to live off of the grid in a dilapidated house, yet heavily wired and in tune with the outside world. As she gains more trust, she naturally gains more knowledge and reports back to her supervisor (Patricia Clarkson) who pulls her in and out several times. Viewed as a transient, The East never seem to question her taking part in their “jams”, then disappearing, only to return again and again.
The East serves as a second collaboration between actress Brit Marling and director Zal Batmanglij, whose 2012 feature The Sound Of My Voice received Independent Spirit Award nominations and critical acclaim. Marling serves as co-writer, co-producer and star of this endeavor and her measured temperament as an actress works well here. Whether she is Jane or Sarah, Marling feels real, without vanity, able to allow us to buy in to the surprises which not only await us as viewers but her character as well. Settling in with the group, Sarah never anticipates a true connection to The East will materialize in her work. Of course we naturally do because without that conflict The East is not really much of a movie.
Moving at an increasingly urgent pace, The East delivers some anxious moments and tension, embedding a few twists and turns along the way. When Benji and Sarah start spending more time working with one another and Benji starts involving his newfound charge into the planning and decision-making of the group’s next “jam”, Sarah overtakes Jane’s more conservative sensibilities and the film dovetails a bit, taking a walkabout with an unnecessary subplot that becomes somewhat distracting and problematic.
The East survives some clumsy flourishes and remains a strong film with great performances and a pulsing, of-the-moment screenplay. As it turns out, Marling and Batmanglij have some firsthand knowledgeable with what they feature here. In 2009, the Georgetown alumni decided to disappear from society and become freegans for a few months, living off the discarded food and supplies which were perpetually wasted and tossed out by their fellow man. While Marling has called that experience life-changing, one which transformed her outlook on the world, those experiences which find their way into this film are fleeting at best. Where The East truly clicks is in the interplay among the main characters and the tension surrounding the continual “jams” the group orchestrate.
Sadly, the third act suffers considerably, as the various plot points and interlocking narratives try to fuse together in a “gotcha!” type of moment. Building to those scenes, the film is far too literal in its dialogue and its foreshadowing to mask the main twist which the film pivots on to turn home for the finish. And yet, as I acknowledge that, I remained locked into every frame. Watching the intoxicating Alexander Skarsgard sway the hearts and minds as Benji, learning about the hyperkinetic purpose-driven life Izzy has chosen to lead, and hearing the back stories from the other role players as they contextualize why they are members of The East keep you focused and on edge.
In reality, Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij do great work as a team and their yin and yang have now, in two instances, delivered back-to-back psychological thrillers that hang around you for awhile once the credits have rolled on by.
SHOULD I SEE IT?
- A tense thriller always intrigues an audience and The East dabbles in cult life, environmental activism and has enough of an of-the-moment hook that if its gets into wide enough release, word of mouth might make this a sleeper hit.
- Brit Marling is a voice we need in film. She is not the tabloid-leading stereotypical leading lady-type but she is making and writing challenging and thought-provoking films. When you add in Another Earth, she has had a hand in three intriguing films so far. Stay through the credits.
- Great performances from Marling, Ellen Page, and Alexander Skarsgard almost in and of themselves make this worth checking out.
- For some, the eco-terrorism angle and the perhaps expected bend the film takes with Marling’s character will strike some as providing a mixed message that is incredibly divisive.
- When it becomes literal and predictable, The East starts to buckle and fray around the edges. For some, it may literally fall apart right before your eyes with a dicey third act.
- Brit Marling’s approach to acting rubs some people the wrong way and her screenplays love to be coy and ambiguous. This is a film which could frustrate for that reason.