- The East (2013) movie review: Relentless self-importance derails the – however pertinent – message of director/co-screenwriter Zal Batmanglij and actress/co-screenwriter Brit Marling’s social thriller.
The East is a didactic polemic couched in a – mediocre – thriller that takes itself far too seriously to be taken seriously.
Of course, 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, Ridley Scott and [executive producer] Tony Scott) – aren’t earnest ones. To the best that can be discerned, Batmanglij and Marling seem to genuinely care about our society and its 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 filmmakers’ very earnestness that becomes their 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 isn’t joking, but it should be.
How do you get there from here?
The East’s awfully 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 ecoterrorist 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 movie’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.
With the Son of Stellan Skarsgård all done up like Jesus (or David Koresh – or, for that matter, any number of charismatic cult leaders), we eventually 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 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.
‘Jams’ & ethical dilemma
Labeling itself a “collective” (a failure of cleverness), The East plans and pulls off events they call “jams” (an even less clever moniker). These jams are meant to expose the malfeasance of corporations that hurt everyone – those who distribute untested pharmaceuticals and dump chemicals into our drinking water.
That’s 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 The East’s 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 or “jams,” however well done, do not a good movie make.
Still, the larger undoing of Batmanglij and Marling’s movie isn’t its lack of humor and cleverness. Instead, its key problem is its disingenuousness, which could be missed if one were not watching it 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 poisoning the purveyors of corporate avarice with their own champagne – on our behalf.
In short, The East isn’t funny. And it’s 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. After all, the filmmakers want us to sit through their movie, reminding us we’re not beautiful and don’t have any trust funds against which to rebel.
The East (2013)
Director: Zal Batmanglij.
Screenplay: Zal Batmanglij & Brit Marling.
Cast: Brit Marling. Alexander Skarsgård. Ellen Page. Toby Kebbell. Shiloh Fernandez. Patricia Clarkson. Danielle Macdonald. Jason Ritter. Julia Ormond. Billy Magnussen. Jamey Sheridan.
“The East (2013) Movie Review” notes
What does the title refer to?
 In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Zal Batmanglij explained:
“The East is … the East Coast, which is like something in our American collective consciousness – New England, tony, center of power. The Wicked Witch of the East in the Oz mythology was the bad witch because the book was about how the Midwest was getting screwed over by the east, by Washington. And then of course we have the Middle East or the Far East, which is seen as different or other. The ultimate Other. So, it’s funny that this word means two things, and I thought that was an interesting name for a resistance group that is combined of kids from New England who want to make themselves the Other.”
“The East Movie” endnotes
Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling met while attending Georgetown University.
Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgård, and Ellen Page in The East movie images: Fox Searchlight.
“The East Movie (2013): Self-Important Thriller” last updated in January 2022.