Sunday, August 3, 2014

The East

Directed by Zal Batmanglij.
2013. Rated PG-13, 116 minutes.
Brit Marling
Alexander Skarsgard
Ellen Page
Toby Kebbell
Shiloh Fernandez
Patricia Clarkson
Aldis Hodge
Danielle Macdonald
Jason Ritter
Julia Ormond

Sarah (Marling) is a corporate spy, of sorts. The organization she works for gets hired by corporations to infiltrate and provide information on groups who perform terrorist acts against them. The East is the most notorious of these groups as their stunts make national headlines and are growing increasingly dangerous. After telling her boyfriend she's on her way to Dubai for an assignment, she dyes her hair, dons some grungy clothing, and heads off to where the local vagrants hang out in hopes of getting into The East.

The premise is an intriguing one, though I have no idea why she couldn't just be an actual federal agent rather than working in a completely made up industry (I think). It's irrelevant to the plot and everything she does, every step of the way winds up in the hands of the FBI. Still, the idea of going deep undercover in a counter-culture group like The East is ripe with possibilities. While the movie does explore many of them, it does so in a manner that feels rushed. Our heroine finds the people she's looking for, gets accepted by them after some hesitance on their part, falls in love with one of them, etc. However, it all happens so fast, it's not to be believed. On top of that, she's a lousy operative. At the first sign of trouble, she purposely blows her own cover. This presents the movie with a chance to movie in a more dramatic direction. Instead, the character that knows too much simply disappears from the movie, leaving behind only a cryptic message that everyone sort of shrugs their shoulders at when they see it. All together, we just be-bop along until we get to the inevitable Earth Day inspired finale. It's a commendable film, to be sure, but a heavy-handed and not particularly good one.

What keeps The East from being a complete waste is that there are some excellent individual scenes, and a pair of really good performances. The scenes where the group is executing their acts of terrorism, or jams as they call them, pique our interest. The second of these, involving the forcing of two corporate big wigs into waters their company polluted is emotionally charged. For my money, it's by far the best few minutes in the movie. This brings me to Ellen Page's phenomenal work. She sells the scene, and her entire role, for all she's worth. Whatever it was she thought she was going to get out of this part, she goes for it. I'll caution you to take my words with a grain of salt because I've become an apologist for the actress. No matter how good or bad the film she's in, I find her to be great. I like to think this is an unbiased opinion because I honestly don't find her physically attractive. The other good performance belongs to Brit Marling, who co-wrote this film, in the lead. It's nothing she should've gotten a statuette for, but it's wonderfully understated for most of the run-time. A lot of emotion comes through the looks on her face without her appearing to mug for the camera.

Unfortunately, most of Marling's and Page's work is negated by the underwhelming turn by Alexander Skarsgard as Benji, the group's leader. It appears the character is underwritten for what he's trying to do with it, and he doesn't have the charisma to pull it off, anyway. He, and maybe director Zal Batmanglij, clearly want Benji to be an equal to John Hawkes' unsettling, yet magnetic cult-leader in Martha Marcy May Marlene. However, he's a dollar store knock-off, serviceable, but nothing that's going to get us up in arms. It doesn't help that the next most important character, after everyone already mentioned here, is Doc (Kebbell). The movie's heavy-handedness shines most through him. His very existence is so manipulative, he's like a walking, talking public service announcement. He should just repeat the same line over and over. Whenever anyone says anything to him, he should stare directly into the camera and say "Stop corporate pollution, now!" And I'm not even joking.

Like The Purge, a movie that came out in close proximity to this one, the promise of its premise far exceeds what ends up on the screen. Instead of building a good movie about an undercover agent that works toward and finishes with a message, The East beats us over the head with that message and tries to fit the undercover stuff into whatever spaces are left. Since subtlety is lost, it brazenly attempts to manipulate our emotions. No matter how unsuccessful it might be at doing this, it continuously tries. Give it an "A" for persistence, I guess. What no one involved seems to realize, though, is that a more tactful and entertaining approach is needed, no matter how dire the situation is we're addressing. I mean, I assume we're all against Catholic priests molesting choir boys and I'll assume there are people who dislike Catholics, for whatever reason. Nevertheless, Sinead O'Connor on national TV holding up a picture of the pope and declaring "This is the real evil," was a turn off (youtube Sinead O'Connor SNL, young'uns). This movie definitely takes the Sinead approach.

MY SCORE: 5.5/10


  1. I liked The East a little more (I'd rate it a 6.5 on your scale), but I agree for the most part. Skarsgard is such a dull character and brings virtually nothing to the table. Thank God for Ellen Page. Marling does a solid job making us care for Sarah, yet I wasn't as engaged as I expected. There are interesting moments and I like the premise, but it didn't pack the punch that I hoped it would.

    1. Yes, thank God for Ellen Page! The frustrating thing about this movie is you can see the potential for much greater things that it just fails to deliver.

  2. Aw, it's a bummer you didn't like this one more. It was one of my favorites of last year.

    1. It had the potential to be one of my faves, just didn't follow through on it.

  3. Haven't seen Sound of My Voice. I'll have to check that out. And yeah, Shiloh wasn't good.

  4. I liked it a little more least a 6. I didn't find Benji charismatic as well and yeah Sarah is such a bad spy...she just seemed so easily turned...didn't she already know the bad stuff the client has been doing...because the polluted water thing seemed to shock her too.

    Oh and I think I know why, she isn't a federal agent. As a corporate spy she isn't there to get information so that they can stop this aggressive green group because of their terrorist acts. She's to gather information so her employers and their clients (the big bad corporations) can stop the East and continue to pollute the earth without groups like the East drawing attention or stopping their operation.

    1. Yeah, I found it odd that she was so bad at her job. I get why the story doesn't have her as a fed, it just feels like an unnecessary barrier between her and the law since the conflict of the movie can be boiled down to whether or not these people belong in jail. Having her as a fed would really have changed nothing.