SIFF Film Review – The East
Last year, director Zal Batmanglij and actress Brit Marling surprised audiences with their first original production together, Sound of My Voice, a film about a cult around a supposed time traveler. While it wasn’t on my top ten films of the year, it left me curious about the people who made it. Venturing into an area few indie films have gone by tackling time travel, they crafted a story that was simple, mysterious and, most importantly, original. The film made a little over $400k theatrically, but has developed a cult following and has helped to elevate Marling into the category of being a hot new actress. One year later, their sophomore project together, The East, brings with it a bigger budget, a star-studded cast, and high hopes of being the film that breaks them through to the mainstream.
I don’t want to immediately jump on The East’s back, but the story definitely has striking parallels to Sound of My Voice. Batmanglij and Marling are very much back in familiar territory, as it is the story of a skeptical outsider who joins a group with a messianic leader and winds up having their beliefs challenged. Maybe you can chalk this up to being just another variation of the “fish out of water” trope, but why remake the same film in consecutive years? The twist this time is that Marling plays the character on the other side of the situation, the skeptic, rather than the charismatic leader. We follow her as Sarah, an operative at a high-end private intelligence firm who is asked to go undercover in “The East,” an anarchist group quickly gaining notoriety for their aggressive tactics in executing attacks on major corporations by responding with actions in-kind…and no, I don’t mean making them wait on hold or receive poor customer service. They use actions like poisoning people who create dangerous prescription drugs or polluting people who pollute the environment.
Conceptually, The East is a great idea. In a world where we talk about the 99%, who hasn’t wanted to take out their frustration on major corporations? The problem is that while The East is presented as being some sort of elite group, their actions imply anything but. They are sloppy, disorganized, easily discovered…why it took an operative like Marling to infiltrate them is beyond me. We see three attacks during the course of the movie and none of them go smoothly. The only believable explanation as to why the FBI wouldn’t have been able to track them down is that they are completely incompetent themselves. Instead of striking fear, the group ends up feeling a bit like a bunch of over-privileged kids working out their family issues.
The casting of Batmanglij’s and Marling’s film takes a dramatically higher profile this time, with stars such as Alexander Skarsgård, Patricia Clarkson, and Ellen Page. Even with all the established talent, the clear standout of the film is Marling, who doesn’t just act out her role, but inhabits the part. Her abilities as a writer and an actress are quite impressive, and she looks like someone who might have a substantial influence on Hollywood as she goes forward with her career. I had high hopes for Skarsgård; he was incredibly tender in What Maisie Knew and is set up well to play the messianic character here, but his backstory ends up being underwhelming. If anything, Toby Kebbell’s character, Doc, one of the other members of The East, is way more endearing and elicits more sympathy. I’m not entirely sure I understand the appeal of Skarsgård’s character; he is engaging, but he is sloppy and his “grand” vision is not particularly grand. He ends up feeling kind of like a phony to me. It is also hard to imagine the appeal of being in the movie for Clarkson, unless it was just so she could work with Marling. Out of the three star supporting players, Page clearly has the most engaging part, playing against type and with a solid character arc. This is a rare instance where the female characters are better defined than their male counterparts (Clarkson not withstanding).
Where things really begin to unravel is at the film’s ending. In Sound of My Voice, things are left open, allowing the audience to come to their conclusion, as it is a discussion about faith. The East concludes by trying to mix a clever twist with an absurd happy ending. Unfortunately, neither element leaves you thinking or particularly satisfied. The happy ending is so off-putting that it negatively impacted my feelings towards the whole movie. It is clichéd, illogical, and felt like it had Hollywood written all over it. I’m not sure if Batmanglij and Marling were pressured into altering the ending by anyone, but it has all the marks of playing it safe.
I wouldn’t go so far as to call The East a sophomore slump. It has a great concept and some excellent acting, but unfortunately it leaves you thinking only about what could have been. Clearly there is a great film within The East, but the final product isn’t it. Even still, Batmanglij and Marling are proving to be one of the more interesting tandems working in Hollywood. I would love to see them try something new. The East is worth seeing, but check out Sound of My Voice to see how it is done right.
Final Grade: B-