Friday, October 18, 2013

FI: The East

The East
US, 2013
Co-written (with Brit Marling) and directed by Zal Batmanglij

It's somehow difficult for me to talk about The East, the eco-terror thriller from writer/director Zal Batmanglij and co-writer/star Brit Marling, without thinking of the last ecologically-themed movie I spoke about here on the blog, Barry Levinson's The Bay. Each struggles with an amount of preachiness, though only The East asks the audience to question this tendency to any extent. Both movies use the language of genre—spy/thriller and found footage horror, respectively—to make their environmental and anti-corporate points. And both films, unfortunately, hew too closely to the beats of their chosen genre and fall prey to predictability as a result. As my review indicated, there were other, bigger problems with The Bay, namely a scattershot approach that dilutes the terror by moving across too many thinly-drawn stories. But The East embeds its predictability in a tight, focused story and almost winds up working in spite of itself.

The titular "The East" is an anarchist group that mixes elements of Anonymous with hippie collectivism and culture jamming attacks that damage the reputations (and, occasionally, the lives) of the people and companies they target. They believe that someone should strike back against those who destroy the environment and put out toxic products, and struggle internally with how much damage they should cause in return. Into this mix comes "Sarah" (Marling), a former FBI agent currently working as undercover operative for a private security/intel firm. Her boss, Sharon (a characteristically-icy Patricia Clarkson), tasks Sarah with infiltrating The East on behalf of the firm's corporate clientele. Sarah slowly edges her way towards encountering members of The East, who live as freegans in a secluded, run-down farmhouse, and begins integrating herself into their lifestyle and plans. She meets the open-minded Luca (Shiloh Fernandez), the helpful-but-damaged Doc (Toby Kebbell), the severe, stand-offish Izzy (Ellen Page), and the leader, the charismatic, brooding Benji (Alexander Skarsgård). Each member's reasons for being there, we learn, are as personal as they are political. Could the same be true for Sarah?

The film's look (aided by Roman Vasyanov's fine low-light photography) and pacing mostly work, and its tight focus on Sarah's experiences does keep things grounded and engaging even as the plot paints by numbers. Marling's performance alternates between gutsy and hauntingly empty, a strange mix unless you consider her a vessel waiting to be filled by a purpose, be that a mission or the role she's currently playing. I don't think we ever find out why Sarah left the FBI, but it's safe to assume it might be because she got "too close", and may have liked it.  At any rate, Clarkson's character telegraphs this happening with The East. Even as she despises and reports on The East's methods, Sarah sympathizes with their ideals, and her doing so is presented as a no-brainer—how could anyone NOT, what with the BAD THINGS these companies do and all the GOOD food that goes to waste? Perhaps you detect a note of sarcasm: this tacit assumption of good and bad taints The East with a slight air of self-righteousness that is undiminished by simple attempts to inject some grey into the film's underlying black and white morality. This, coupled with the script's unwillingness to budge too far from the conventions of its genre, handicap what is otherwise a solid, if episodic, film.

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