*** (out of 5)
May 31, 2013
Brit Marling as SARAH
Alexander Skarsgård as BENJI
Ellen Page as IZZY
Toby Kebbell as DOC
Shiloh Fernandez as LUCA
Aldis Hodge as THUMBS
Danielle Macdonald as TESS
Studio: Fox Searchlight
Directed by: Zal Batmanglij
BY KEVIN CARR
Listen to Kevin’s radio review…
While I’m not put off by Brit Marling’s relatively quick turn as indie darling, I’m not a huge fan of her either. I hated “Another Earth,” but I thoroughly enjoyed “The Sound of My Voice.” Conversely, I thought she was woefully miscast in films like “Arbitrage” and “The Company You Keep.” Still, I respect her for forging an artistic path for herself as a writer and an actress.
Following up “The Sound of My Voice,” Marling and director Zal Batmanglij have delivered the more ambitious but similarly-themed “The East.” While the stories are quite different, they hit on similar themes like secrets and lies, infiltration, cults, fringe activities and powerful authority figures.
“The East” tells the story of a former FBI agent named Sarah (Marling) who now works for a private security firm. She is charged with the duties of infiltrating a fringe eco-terrorist group known as The East so she can feed intel back to some of the group’s political targets. Sarah manages to squeeze her way into the group, but soon she begins to identify with the members, putting her loyalties and her mission at risk.
Though covering similar ground, “The East” tackles larger issues than the relatively well-contained “The Sound of My Voice.” Rather than trying to expose a cult and answering to no one, the characters of “The East” are higher profile. It’s a bigger movie, though it still is grounded in independent roots, so it doesn’t run off the rails to become an alternative version of the “Bourne” films.
There’s a lot to be said in “The East,” but unfortunately, a lot of that message is misdirected into the extremes. As Sarah becomes more involved with the group, her sympathies lean towards that of the charismatic leader Benji (Alexander Skarsgård). The problem with this is that Benji and his company are so far left of center that they can barely operate in normal society.
Reportedly, “The East” was partially inspired by Marling and Batmanglij’s three-month freeganism experiment, which challenged them to dumpster dive eat discarded-but-not-spoiled food as a protest against commercialism. This is apparent in the film’s message, which takes several moments to hammer home a freeganism message when that’s really not the point of the movie, or the cause of the group.
The greater issues of corporate greed, pollution, questionable government regulations and decadent wealth get lost while Marling’s character launches into a speech about partially-eaten apples and half-drank water bottle in the trash.
It seems that Batmanglij made a specific effort to not glamorize the film with a typical Hollywood spy theme, and I can respect that. However, this left the movie to focus on the characters, which was only interesting when select ones were on screen because the other were either trite or poorly developed.
Still, “The East” at the very least is a conversation starter. It’s a movie that can get you to think about the society in which we live and our treatment of those – and the world – around us. Sadly, the answers to the questions it raises won’t be found in the extremes, which is where the battle is taking place in the film.