By: Garrett Collins
Starring: Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgaard, Ellen Page, Tony Kebbell, Shiloh Fernandez, Jason Ritter, Julia Ormond and Patricia Clarkson
There are a certain number of structures within the human subconscious that Hollywood has found fit to explore. These different types of emotionally driven archetypes are exactly what The East attempts to delve into. First, the ability to tap into the public’s subconscious. Films like Falling Down and Sleepless in Seattle make fantasies people have in their head a reality on the screen. Who hasn’t wanted to jump into the ultimate fit of road rage or meet that far away person who is your soul mate? Check. Second, films like 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene have been more chilling than the normal everyday horror film just for their exploring what exactly makes an occult and their inhabitants tick. Check. Finally, 2011 saw me discover an actress by the name of Brit Marling, whom I felt had all the makings of a star. Films like Sound Of My Voice and Another Earth (both of which, like The East, she also co-wrote) show that she has an uncanny talent of bringing emotion and smart writing to the table. Check. All of these abilities are shown in Marling and director Zal Batmanglij’s new film The East. An eco thriller, The East brims with on the surface conventions, and even with its few problems, has enough gusto to be another great notch on Marling’s belt.
The East concerns the penetration of a cult organization by double agent Jane (by now known as Sarah). Being sent in by Sharon, her hard ass boss (Clarkson), Sarah is quick to make friends with the group, and gets involved in their brand of domestic terrorism. Going on missions they refer to as ‘jams’ (I swear they say jams so many times that by the time The East was over, I was craving not one but two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches), they carry out such tasks as bathing chemical engineers in the sludge that they dump in rivers. As a result of sitting in on their meetings & listening to Benji (Skarsgaard) preach their cause, Jane is seeing things differently than when she came in. Combined with the feelings she has for her hard as nails conservative boss, Sarah is starting to question her own conservative values. The East is produced by Scott Free Productions, making this one of the last films to bear the late Tony Scott’s name as producer. I can see why the brothers would be attracted to the material, as it has an aesthetic that was an overbearing presence in both their best films. The East feels like an attempt to twist and toy with our emotions in much the same ways as the group does Sarah‘s. And if this film were to be judged on performances alone, it could be seen as defiantly successful at it. Skarsgaard, honing a Jesus beard, is fantastic as group leader Benji. Kebbell is very good and likable as Doc, the group medic. And Fernandez is excellent as nice guy Luca. However, the big surprise to me was Page. No stranger to eclectic roles, she is chilly cold as Izzy, the group member who questions Sarah’s intentions the most. After an emotionally painful initiation, Izzy grows to like Sarah, and Page is excellent at walking the fine line between wearing emotions on her sleeve and having a quiet menace. Marling, as expected, is really good. And aside from a long drawn out attempt at dramatizing the dying of her hair from blonde to brunette, is captivating every single time she is onscreen.
Quite honestly, I was with Sarah throughout The East’s entire running time. As the mark of a good film about an occult is if you ask the same questions the protagonist does. How would I be feeling? Would I have begged my hard nosed boss to be let out of the operation? These are emotions that are essential to tap into with a thriller like this. And a lot of the problems with The East, quite honestly, just come with the genre it is in. As even with a pretty decent plot twist two-thirds in, there is literally nothing that takes place in The East which we haven’t seen before. Also, a lot of the dialogue that is spewed in The East can be found on the back of any old station wagon. And with an uncomfortable yet clumsily put together game of spin the bottle, the film carries some plodding that I had not seen in past Marling works. Nonetheless, the really good films circle back around when they start to get bogged down with plodding. And The East is a polished, very well put together film. Its ability to androgynously come across as both an art and popcorn film makes me believe there is a huge possibility that it can have a wide commercial appeal. Very intense but not very suspenseful, The East may not contain close to the power that Maylene possesses, but it is still a film that needs to be seen.
3.5 out of 5