Movie Review - The East

Alexander Skarsgård (front), Brit Marling and
Toby Kebbell (rear) in a scene from "The East"
Brit Marling is the star and co-writer of The East, and it is more proof that she is a creative force in the filmmaking community that deserves more recognition. She burst into the scene when her first film Another Earth (2011) premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Ever since, she's been working in the independent and arthouse cinema world to much acclaim. The East has Marling as an undercover agent for a private company trying to expose an eco-terrorist group intent on seeking revenge against big corporations that pollute the Earth.

Directed by Zal Batmanglij, this film shares themes and plot points with Batmanglij and Marling's previous collaboration Sound of My Voice (2012). It involves a person infiltrating and trying to integrate or ingratiate herself in a secretive, off-the-grid collective. Instead of a cult, here it's a bunch of radical environmentalists. It also involves that person semi-falling in love with the leader of said collective.

This film is certainly better than Sound of My Voice. Batmanglij and Marling have an upward trajectory. Their output has increased in quality as they've gone along. What improves is that in this film the two are able to dig into the characters that comprise the collective. I felt like I really didn't get to know the same-level characters in Sound of My Voice.

Yes, we get to know the leader of the group, but we also really get great depth to the others and not simply the terrorists but Batmanglij and Marling flesh out the world around them as well as Marling's character Jane Owen who goes undercover as Sarah. She spends some time on the fringe, hanging out with people whom she hopes will lead her to the eco-terrorists known as The East.

She stumbles upon Luca, played by Shiloh Fernandez, a possibly queer, Johnny Depp-looking stowaway who delights in dumpster diving. Jane meets Eve, played by Hillary Baack, who is deaf and mostly speaks in sign language. Jane bumps heads with Izzy, played by Ellen Page, who is the daughter of a corrupt, corporation executive and who is the most distrusting and cynical of them all.

There are others whom we get to know, but key among them is the leader of The East, a man who calls himself Benji. He's played by Alexander Skarsgård (True Blood). The chemistry between Marling and Skarsgård is stronger and better developed than the chemistry between Marling and Christopher Denham from Sound of My Voice. What helps is that Marling sets up incredibly, sexually-frustrating scenes, including a bathtub scene where Marling admires or at least appreciates Skarsgård's naked beauty. The other is a spin-the-bottle scene that results in some intense intimacy.

But still, the supporting cast beyond the ones mentioned is all great. Patricia Clarkson and Jason Ritter round out the B-players, but actors who pop up for one scene really leave an impression like Billy Magnussen who plays the son of The East's first target or what they call "jam," as well as Jamey Sheridan who plays Izzy's father.

There are two things that I feel Batmanglij and Marling don't really pull off. At one point, Clarkson's character Sharon tells Jane that if you spend day-in and day-out with a pack of white supremacists, you'll develop feelings for them. This is essentially the premise of the movie, but I just didn't buy that. To compare The East to white supremacists is unfair or it's a false equivalency.

The other thing that the filmmakers don't really pull off is the penultimate jam. I'm not sure what The East was out to accomplish. It all seemed contrived and manufactured to eliminate a character, but its overall purpose would not have accomplished anything that a simple camera crew couldn't have accomplished. Beyond terrorizing two people, there was no substantial point.

Three Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for violence, some disturbing images, sexual content and partial nudity.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 55 mins.

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