Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 56 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Thematic Elements, Violence, some Disturbing Images, Sexual Content and partial Nudity
Directed by: Zal Batmanglij
Written by: Zal Batmanglij & Brit Marling
Starring: Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgard, Ellen Page, Toby Kebbell, Shiloh Fernandez, Aldis Hodge, Danielle Macdonald, Hillary Baack & Patricia Clarkson
In his second feature film, Zal Batmanglij is demonstrating a talent for creating smart and interesting movies that rely heavily on characters for story. Zal’s directorial debut was SOUND OF MY VOICE, a film that I really dug until the too-rushed too-vague ending. It felt like he had run out of money on that film and had to end it sooner than he wanted to, which was probably not the case…but you never know. Here Zal is given enough of a budget to have a relatively big-named cast and make a film that feels complete in every way.
We begin with an announcement from an anarchist group, calling themselves “The East.” They say they’ve targeted three large corporations that profit by stepping on the poor and using unethical practices (creating drugs with awful side effects, dumping waste in public water, etc.) and will attack them in carefully executed ways. Sarah Moss, an undercover investigator, is assigned to make her way inside The East. She will see how they operate, uncover their plans, and ultimately find a sense of meaning in this anarchist group. Her morals and loyalties are both tested and the ever-present threat of The East finding out who she actually is begins to tighten.
Co-written by director Zal Batmanglij and actress Brit Marling, THE EAST sprung from an interesting research process. Apparently, both Batmanglij and Marling lived a “Freeganism” summer in 2009. They bought nothing, lived off no money by dumpster diving for perfectly healthy discarded food (something that is thrown away all the time) and slept in abandoned houses, while hopping trains to travel. This experience lead both of them to incorporate these elements into the characters in THE EAST and gave them insight into a totally different way of living.
The script makes the smart decision of putting a possible political and social message aside to tell a story about characters, their decisions, and moral dilemmas. THE EAST could have easily been seen as “a hippie piece of propaganda” and instead it’s a wildly original compelling thriller. There is an increasing amount of solid suspense that ramps up as the film goes along and a few unexpected twists along the way that take the story in new interesting directions.
My single complaint with the movie is that the first 30 minutes leave the viewer a little lost. We understand that The East is an anarchist group and that Sarah is supposed to infiltrate them, but the process of finding The East themselves is a tad silly. Luckily for Sarah and the audience, it worked in the film’s favor eventually. Other than this portion of the movie, both Batmanglij and Marling have constructed a unique thoroughly enjoyable thriller.
The acting is fantastic across the board. Not a single bad or shaky performance in the fairly large cast. Speaking of which, I was surprised to see some of the names here. Toby Kebbell (Jonny Quid from ROCKNROLLA) takes a sympathetic turn as the group’s doctor (of sorts) with personal vendetta against a medical company that left him unstable. Patricia Clarkson shows up in a few key scenes as Sarah’s superior with some ulterior motives involving a few of the companies targeted. Shiloh Fernandez (who was amazing in DEADGIRL and so-so in RED RIDING HOOD) plays a character unlike any he’s ever touched. Ellen Page was a wild card for a while, but her character eventually turned out to be one of the best. Alexander Skarsgard knocks it out of the park and finally Brit Marling continues to prove that she’s one of the best little-known actresses working today.
The conclusion of THE EAST pulls heartstrings and tests the viewer’s side, along with Sarah’s. It’s a polarizing ending that will divide audiences right down the middle. Personally, I thought it closed off in the best way possible. I didn’t predict it. In fact, I thought the film was headed in a complete opposite direction, but THE EAST is a film that will leave you thinking about it long after it’s over. The mark of a truly great film.