Release Date: June 28th, 2013 (UK)
Genre: Drama; Thriller
Starring: Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgård, Ellen Page, Toby Kebbell
“You put your first choice in the middle, because putting it last is expected,” asserts private intelligence boss Sharon. The line is intended as a foreshadowing of upcoming covert antics, but unfortunately ultimately applies to The East in a more fundamental manner. After a strong opening compounded by some tense half-way happenings, the film conforms to conjecture as it nears conclusion. Tonally, we spend a lot of time in the right place. There’s a significant plot issue though, one that tows the line between too obvious and too presumptuous and that never really finds a happy medium. It’s a notable flaw, but one that isn’t terminal thanks to Brit Marling’s glue-like principal performance and an ever bubbling cauldron of questions.
With anti-corruption and pro-repercussion faction The East dishing out their own brand of justice on corporations that they deem highly unethical, undercover agent Jane (Brit Marling) finds herself dawning disguise in order to infiltrate and impede. Now known as Sarah — she is working covertly after all — the intelligence officer finds herself almost immediately drawn to the cult’s in-house authentic methods, not to mention the diverse personnel on show; from curious leader Benji (Alexander Skarsgård), to the well-meaning Doc (Toby Kebbell). Questions arise baring inconclusive answers and a mist of uncertainty soon shrouds notions of right or wrong.
It’s clear that director Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling (they co-wrote the screenplay together) are both invested in spouting a nuanced rhetoric and raising contemporary queries here. And for around fifty minutes, the duo are fruitful in their efforts. From polished corporate desks to some gritty journeying inside a dark carriage, Sarah’s initial intrusion attempts land her amidst the unknown. She is unknown too; apart from determination and smarts, we don’t have much of inclination as to where the dial on her moral compass points. Far from east, presumably. There’s not an awful lot of dialogue in the opening act, further funding a disorienting sensation that often aligns itself with the cult-seeking occupation. This means plot exposition is at a premium which, for those well-versed in the surveillance-thriller genre, is flattering. Though, the average movie-goer mightn’t take too kindly towards the film’s preconceived expectation that its audience’s knowledge berth refutes narrative explanation.
Dilemmas spark early on, presenting a mind map of questions that spawn from one central musing: who are the real bad guys? In an age where recycling is embedded into the domestic environment, where we instantly charge multinational suits with having a financially-driven ethos and where our opinions clash murkily over Twitter hashtags, The East’s main inquest floats around a pool of ambiguity. For a while, this creates an uneasy atmosphere where trust is difficult to assert. We are inclined to vote for Sarah because she is the main persona, unorthodoxly charming, a do-gooder working for a company whose motto is to defend us. Yet it’s a private firm, Hiller Brood, the exact kind targeted by The East.
The East, a group of rebels whose incentives on the surface are valiant and contemporary, aimed at exposing corruption: Doc informs those who will listen about deceitful loopholes such as side-effects printed on drugs, the text we barely ever read, warnings that exist solely as a mechanism to deflect blame from manufacturer to consumer (“That’s how they rape you, in broad daylight”). But the cult’s methods are dubious and they carry the idiom of terrorism, a word we are programmed to vehemently oppose. Undoubtedly, Batmanglij and company are on to something; a modern hoodish thriller supported by an infusion of geopolitics and cult behaviour. Sarah’s experiences within the group consume most of the overly-long runtime and, unsurprisingly, the best interactions are those displayed during the film’s better early half. A family dinner is particularly creepy — leader Benji resembles Jesus with his scruffy beard and long brown hair as he sits at the head of the table, his disciples scattered around waiting to comply, candles flickering and fighting off darkness.
Despite a promising inception, The East eventually disposes of its affecting restraint and increasingly succumbs to a please-the-masses mindset. From beaming an off-kilter aura akin to that of Batmanglij’s previous outing Sound of My Voice, proceedings undergo an unnecessary tonal shift and begin to closer resemble the slick blueprints of something like 21. Instead of seeing odd rituals, we watch The East group cohesively strategise and execute plans that become progressively silly as goings-on advance. A polished and shrewd heist-like presentation often carries dangerous affection — we tend to revel in well-executed wrong-doing (think Ocean’s trilogy). This is certainly not the type of admiration that should be associated with secretive and brooding cults, yet it’s the kind seeking approval here. After establishing a plethora of ambiguous players, it’s almost as if the film is trying to make our mind up for us by attempting to manufacture likeability, even though The East aren’t a particularly amiable bunch.
Worse than that, searing plot-holes begin to undermine the cult’s mystic air: they don’t do any significant background checks on new members and allow people to leave base for extended periods of time, two missteps that do not align with the meticulous planning that goes on prior to delivering their threats. Very early on a member finds out that Sarah is not who she claims to be, yet said person places more trust in the threatening stranger than her pseudo-family. How the clan has survived without being unmasked, either publicly or at least to the authorities, is anyone’s guess. Answers evade me.
Notwithstanding these shortcomings, the film is held together by an excellent central performance from Brit Marling. Unlike in Sound of My Voice, Marling portrays the afflicted rather the allusive and does so with some gusto (she practised freeganism before filming in order to gain a more realistic character perspective). The actor always transmits an enchanting scent and always seems at home when working with a degree or two of obscurity. Throughout, she must juggle two different personalities — the investigative agent and the cogent clique comrade — and manages to do so while evolving Sarah’s outlook rather than sacrificing her continuity. The narrative may jar, but Marling’s character definitely does not. Ellen Page plays Izzy, who is most affected by the plot’s occasionally far-fetched demeanour. Alexander Skarsgård is good as Benji, injecting an eerie charisma that, inevitably, cannot be sustained. Doc is the most genial cult member, and it is to Toby Kebbell’s credit that we don’t feel relentless sympathy for him — in spite of his predicament, Doc comes across as strong rather than weak.
Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling try in vein to recapture the ritualistic mystique that reverberated through their previous collaboration, Sound of My Voice. The duo get too caught up in plot endeavours though, birthing a disconcerting genre mishmash. Nonetheless, The East remains a solid outing thanks to Marling’s engaging performance and a handful of relevant societal reflections.
Images copyright (©): Fox Searchlight Pictures