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‘The East’ Review

The East
Fox Searchlight

Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij return with a mainstream follow-up to last year’s ‘Sound of My Voice’ with ‘The East,’ a tale of eco-terrorism that’s less aggressive than it desires to be.

Like the wannabe punk rock kids in high school, ‘The East’ is well-studied in the language of its ideas, but fails to execute them on any meaningful level. Brit Marling plays Sarah, an operative who works for a private firm that specializes in infiltrating the terrorist groups that go after its big corporate clients. When Sarah is tasked with going undercover as a member of eco-terrorist group The East, she finds her own beliefs being infiltrated as she discovers the horrors perpetrated by the corporations the group is retaliating against. Alexander Skarsgard plays Benji, the handsome Christ-like leader of the group, which is rounded out by Ellen Page‘s tough girl Izzy, Shiloh Fernandez‘s sweet guy Luca and Toby Kebbell’s Doc, the group’s medical expert.

To anyone with a brain, ‘The East’ has little effect: we all know that big corporations sacrifice the lives and livelihood of people, and the sanctity of nature with their wasteful, thoughtless enterprises and actions, just as we all know that an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind. The East’s actions against these corporations, while often clever and cruelly precise, are no better than the actions perpetrated by the corporations themselves. That seems like a message, and while ‘The East’ certainly reads like a message movie, there’s very little to be gleaned from its obvious themes.

It’s as if co-writers Batmanglij and Marling (who also gave us last year’s chilling and masterful ‘Sound of My Voice’) opened up one of those novelty boxes of refrigerator magnets stamped with words like “aggressive,” “self-righteous” and “eco-terror,” and slapped them together. And like those refrigerator magnet sets, you can place them in an order that’s coherent, but the end result is ultimately hollow and, regardless of your intention when playing around with them, it will always only be a fabrication of a genuine sentiment or expression.

Characters speak in bumper sticker platitudes to justify their agenda, often verging on satire — a tense scene in which Benji tries to hijack Izzy’s plans, or, as the group refers to them, “jams,” results in Izzy shouting, “But this is my jam!” Surely no one working on this film was so tone deaf as to not realize how unintentionally hilarious that phrase is.

What saves the film from itself and its predictable, hardly biting plot twist is the commitment of the actors to these parts. Marling is, as usual, phenomenal in the lead, while Ellen Page gives us a surprisingly layered and fierce performance, undercut only by her own natural cadence, which often stifles her dramatically. Kebbell is the real standout as Doc, a knowledgeable, soft-spoken member of The East with a tragic past. When both Doc and Izzy’s stories unfold, ‘The East’ finds some much-needed poignancy in a narrative that should come with at least some inherent gravity, but finds itself sadly lacking.

The film suffers the inverse of the sum being greater than its parts — here there are strong elements, but when woven together they hardly coalesce into anything of substance. Aside from the powerful acting, the film also excels in its beautiful, compelling direction, and the attack sequences are chillingly suspenseful. ‘The East’ is hindered by ancillary plot elements that are less than serviceable to what strives to be an intense, suspenseful thriller. Jason Ritter plays Marling’s husband, and his involvement in her story isn’t necessary, either as her anchor to the real world or as a way to show us how distant and disconnected Sarah becomes from it. A few of the supporting members of The East group aren’t fleshed out enough to achieve anything above caricature status, worsened by sequences involving the hippie equivalent of trust fall exercises, where characters ask permission to hug and touch each other intimately.

Ideas about aggressive attitudes, egos and self-righteousness on either side of the politically-charged fence seem too obvious, as does a romantic sub-plot that does little to help get the film to — and through — its third act twist. Like ‘Sound of My Voice,’ ‘The East’ features a late-stage climax, but this story fails to contain itself with the intimacy of the former; it’s hard not to compare the two, however unfair that may seem. ‘The East’ is Batmanglij and Marling attempting to bring their indie thriller sensibility to a wider audience with a much bigger budget, but that studio involvement brings with it the desire to pander to a wider crowd, and you need look no further than the shots of Alexander Skarsgard’s nude body to understand how that’s a problem.

Rating Meter 7

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