'The East' movie: Thriller marred by unbridled earnestness
The East is a didactic polemic couched in a mediocre thriller that takes itself far too seriously to be taken seriously. That isn't to say the concerns of The East's young filmmakers – director / co-screenwriter Zal Batmanglij and leading lady / co-screenwriter Brit Marling (also a producer along with, among others, Tony Scott and Ridley Scott) – aren't earnest. To the best that can be discerned, Batmanglij and Marling seem to genuinely care about our society and its ever-diminishing corporate values.
In fact, the charge brought by The East's characters seems to be the charge brought by its filmmakers: The powers-that-be poison our food and water, and destroy our land and the livelihoods of myriad communities. They will kill, however slowly, with a drip of cancer-causing chemicals literally leached bit by bit into our environment, all for short-term profit and with little concern for anything else.
Unfortunately, it's the very earnestness of the filmmakers that's the movie's undoing. For this sort of polemic to work it must be couched not in a thriller but in a comedy, à la Barry Levinson's Wag the Dog, or even better, Jason Reitman's Thank You for Smoking. The East is not joking, but it should be.
The East film plot: Does the end justify the means?
The East's very serious protagonist, Sarah (Brit Marling), is a young former FBI agent recently employed by an elite private intelligence firm with an even more elite list of corporate clients. Sarah is assigned by the firm's powerful chief executive (played with stunning efficiency by veteran Patricia Clarkson) to infiltrate an eco-terrorist organization called The East.
Now, they may explain in the film why the clandestine group is named The East, but I didn't catch it. Whatever the reason, it's sure to be a clever reference to some ancient text or philosophical tome that really smart kids learn in private schools of the sort the kids in The East (and its filmmakers) attended – and we are duly impressed.
Back to The East's key plot points: Soon, Sarah is hopping trains and pretending to eat food from dumpsters to establish her “cred” as she attempts to suss out some path to The East. By happenstance, she stands up for a possibly gay kid and gets punched by a “railroad bull” for her humanity. What luck! He is a member of The East.
Before long, Sarah is among them – a group that includes Izzy (Ellen Page doing her best Ellen Page), Benji (played by the son of Stellan Skarsgård, whose name is Alexander Skarsgård, but whom I prefer to call The Son of Stellan Skarsgård), and other characters played by a number of lovely and inconsequential young actors.
The Son of Stellan Skarsgård is all done up like Jesus (or David Koresh or any number of charismatic cult leaders, for that matter) and eventually we find ourselves at a rustic dinner table with fake Jesus at its head in a pastiche that looks far too much like The Last Supper to be an accident. At that point, the players enact a ritual meant to illustrate the nature of our selfishness. All this piety and faithfulness to the cause of righteousness is enough to make a less pious individual feel like killing everybody at the table, including Fake Jesus and Sarah, with whom you know Stellan Skarsgård's boy is gonna definitely make it before the credits roll.
[“Movie Review: Brit Marling in The East” continues on the next page. See link below.]
Brit Marling The East photo: Fox Searchlight.
The East film: 'Disingenuousness,' not a lack of humor or cleverness, is its chief shortcoming
The East, which calls itself a “collective” (a failure of cleverness), plans and pulls off events they call “jams” (a moniker that is even less clever). These jams are meant to expose the malfeasance of corporations that truly hurt everyone – those who distribute untested pharmaceuticals and dump chemicals into our drinking water, all stuff ripped from the headlines and demonstrably true. The dilemma established for our heroine Sarah, and thus for us, is whether or not the means justifies the end.
The setup and execution of these stunts are well planned and cinematically well done, like fancy episodes of the old Mission: Impossible television series; the only thing missing is the latex mask and dramatic reveal. There is drama in this business, but stunts and “jams,” however well done, do not a good movie make.
Still, the larger undoing of The East is not its lack of humor or cleverness; instead, the film's key problem is its disingenuousness, which could be missed if one were not watching with the jaundiced eye of an old activist with long memories of movements such as these, past and present.
These characters and these filmmakers are all too beautiful – indeed, too beautifully drawn – to be taken seriously. They are literally just too damn pretty, even when all mussed up. Add to that their arbitrary trust funds, their Ivy League education, and their uncanny ability to clean up real nice with nothing more than a stream to bathe in, a sports jacket, and a little black dress. Next thing you know, they're at the ball literally poisoning the purveyors of corporate avarice with their own champagne – on our behalf. Aren't they sweet?
The East: 'Not funny' and 'not kidding'
In short, The East is not funny. The East is not kidding. The East is sincere and wants us to know that it not only cares, but has the answers to all of society's ills, even as we who are too ignorant, with our average intelligence and lack of money to rebel against, wallow in our unknowing complicity in our own destruction. Fortunately The East is out there, ready to save us from ourselves – by exposing us to ourselves and perhaps by punishing us as well, making us watch this movie even though we are not beautiful and don't have trust funds against which to rebel.
Whatever would we do without The East?
The East (2013). Dir.: Zal Batmanglij. Scr.: Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling. Cast: Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgård, Ellen Page, Toby Kebbell, Shiloh Fernandez, Patricia Clarkson, Danielle Macdonald, Hilary Baack, Jason Ritter, Julia Ormond, Billy Magnussen.
Alexander Skarsgård and Ellen Page in The East film photo: Fox Searchlight.