The East Review [2013 MSPIFF]

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Director Zal Batmanglij re-teams with writer/actress Brit Marling for the extreme environmentalist thriller The East. The film follows a group of anarchists as they attempt to pay back the big corporations and companies that have wronged many people in exchange for millions of dollars. Batmanglij’s The East isn’t nearly as gripping or as interesting as the plot suggests, instead focusing on slow predictability, which is harnessed by a grouping of subtle performances and writing without much punch. The scariest thing about The East is the fact that one could simply fall asleep while watching the film and wake up without having missed anything of real importance. It’s a film that thinks it has a message, but ends up forgetting it twenty minutes in.

Sarah (Brit Marling) is an operative for a private security agency. She’s assigned a deep cover mission to infiltrate the anarchist group known as The East. Once in she must learn who the key players are and who their next targets are, in hopes of counteracting or possibly preventing more innocent deaths.

She enters without much threat and quickly fits in as a member of the outcast group. She learns their ways all too close, slowly mixing up her own believes with theirs. Is she strong enough to pull it together and do what needs to be done or is she too far lost to even know what the difference between right and wrong even is? Has she finally seen the light or are they just really good at brainwashing?

These are things that Zal Batmanglij‘s The East deals with pedestrian level skill. Instead of approaching this over-used trope with a fresh set of independent filmmaker eyes, Batmanglij sticks closely to the beats that we’re already expecting Sarah to follow. She joins the group without much hassle and quickly sets her eyes on the perfectly sculpted (and super smelly) Benji (Alexander Skarsgard). She also learns about the bitch of the group, known as Izzy (Ellen Page), who questions Sarah’s every intentions.

Sarah also meets a handful of other important players, all with their own story about how the “big guys” screwed them or their family members over, which is why they’ve chosen to live the life of a rebellious anarchist. It’s all enduring and emotional, but way too familiar in terms of storytelling.

Just when you think Batmanglij is about to throw in a surprise he simply steps back five feet and continues allowing the film to function on auto-pilot.

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The East may be coming out at a perfect time. A time where people are revolting against the government very loudly, but that doesn’t help the film stick as an important piece of modern cinema or something with a message that should be heard now rather than later.

The East lowers its scope and lessens its impact by focusing on Sarah and her inner-struggle with finding out which side she should be really fighting for. Is she weak for falling for a group of people that took her in when no one else would? Is she stronger for opening her eyes and realizing that not all people are rotten to the core? What does it even mean to be right anymore?

Brit Marling attempts to deconstruct all of these questions, both as the film’s main actress and as a co-writer with Batmanglij. Together they come up with squat, but as an on-screen presence Marling certainly gives Sarah a whole mess of layered problems. Her interactions with different people are what makes Sarah problematically interesting, because watching her work side-by-side with members of The East and then hop in a car and go play everyday girlfriend to her unsuspecting boyfriend paints a complex picture.

It really allows you to get inside the head of an operative that is in this deep and doesn’t know if turning back is the right thing to do anymore. I credit Marling for having a strong head and giving us a character that’s so far gone to the point of leaving you in a state of confusion. There gets to be a point where Sarah isn’t exactly the film’s “good” character anymore.

But then there’s everyone else in the film with absolutely no weight.

Ellen Page is the film’s go-to bitch for 2/3rd’s of the running time, but then she finds a conscious towards the end, obviously when it’s too late.

Alexander Skarsgard mostly exists in this film to take his shirt off and sport a gentleman’s beard, but occasionally he acts as the leader of the group and eventually he seduces Sarah, because he’s Alexander Skarsgard and most ladies can’t resist his touch. In all seriousness, he brings very little to a role that I’d consider of high importance and I don’t blame this on him, but more so on the writers, because none of the characters are written enough material, aside from Sarah.

The East is a predictable look at anarchists striking back at big corporations. It briefly hints at the morality of it all, but it mostly follows the course set for it early on. Every single beat in the film is guessable to a “T” and that ruins the experience until the very last two minutes, which are powerful, but still don’t make up for everything before it.

The East – 6/10

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