For the past three years at MIFF we have been lucky enough to have screenings of the latest Brit Marling films. Brit Marling is an incredibly gorgeous actress who is also a very intelligent writer who often writes (or co-writes) stories with unique and interesting premises. Two years ago we had “Another Earth”, directed by Mike Cahill, and last year came the very awesome and underrated cult-themed thriller “Sound Of My Voice” which was directed by Zal Batmanglij. This year sees Marling reteaming with Batmanglij with the eco-terrorist thriller “The East” but can this exciting cinematic pair strike gold again?
“The East” is the name of a group of eco-terrorists who are systematically targeting large corporations who have destroyed the environment by their negligence. They have announced to the world that over the next two years they will be targeting four of these companies with the plan that the people involved will feel the same pain they have caused. The first “jam”, as the group likes to call them, was an oil company who spilled tones and tones of oil into the ocean killing its inhabitants. “The East” set out to attack the CEO of that company at his home by filling it too with the oil that had done so much damage in the ocean. The “jam” was a complete success, and “The East” are currently working out the details of their next jam which happens to be a negligent pharmaceutical company. Meanwhile Sarah (Marling), who is an operative at a private intelligence firm has been given the task of infiltrating the group, in an attempt to first work out who the next target is going to be and then bring the group down from within. However after being with these people for so long trying to gain their trust, is Sarah in danger of becoming sympathetic to the groups ideals herself?
The set-up of “The East” is really very interesting, as is the entire topic of the film. Eco-terrorism is not something we see explored a lot in cinema so I was quite excited by the prospects of “The East”. The film is at its best in the opening half when we know as little as possible about the anarchic group when Sarah is trying her hardest to first find the group and then be accepted into it. All of the members appear as blank slates, giving nothing away as to who they really are, because they are wary of strangers which they have to be doing what they do. The attacks that the group perform are quite brutal but they truly believe in what they are doing and believe it is for the betterment of the world. The “jam” involving the pharmaceutical company is just sensational as “The East” covertly spike the drinks at one of the company’s functions with a drug that has severe side effects, yet is still on the shelves for sale with the company claiming it is fit for human consumption. When the directors of the company start to suffer the side effects after their poisoning, the product is finally taken off the shelves for good. So while you may not agree with their tactics, it is very easy to agree with the politics of “The East”. The film is riveting during these stages, but once Sarah becomes entrenched within the group and they start to trust her, the members give up their anonymity and start talking about themselves and the film loses all of its power. Even more disappointingly is the fact that we soon learn that there is a personal connection with most of the “jams” the groups perform. The fact that their purpose seems less political and more personal, it made it harder to believe in what the group was doing.
As usual, Brit Marling is superb as Sarah and as gorgeous as ever, although I was initially shocked when she came on screen and her gold locks were replaced with brown, but I liked the new look so it didn’t bother me too much. I will not deny it though that I was happy to see her dye her hair blonde after she gets her assignment to infiltrate “The East”. Marling does a great job of making Sarah a fully rounded character as she shows different facets of the girl at different times. When she is with her boyfriend she is someone who prefers to just lounge around in her sweats and hang out, calm as can be, except that she finds it hard keeping what she does secret from her boyfriend and thus lying to him all the time. At work, however, she is the consummate pro; she is methodical, precise and never takes anything to chance and she is as tough as nails and quick on her feet. At the same time though, she can become anyone she needs to be whenever she needs to, so if she needs to become the caring friend, it is no problem for her.
The members of “The East” are quite a bunch of misfits who are all intense beings in their own right. The group is led by Benji, who is played by Alexander Skarsgard, and who comes across as a very strange and private man, intense as can be and passionate to the cause he is fighting, but as we get to know him more, it appears that he is less of a team player than we originally thought and he is a bit of a wet blanket, as he is ultimately looking for love. The reason behind why he is doing what he is actually made me roll my eyes too and did not come across as very believable. The other standout member of the group is Izzy who is played by Ellen Page. She seems the angriest of the group and the one who takes the longest to trust Sarah, but when she finally does it is like they are best friends all of a sudden. Most disappointing is the fact that Izzy’s ultimate motivation has to do with the fact that she has daddy issues rather than concern for the environment.
While this is a step-up in scope from “Sound Of My Voice” for Zal Batmanglij, “The East” is ultimately a step down in execution. What initially starts off as a very interesting thriller, soon starts to drag its feet while losing its identity along the way. To be truthful, I was very disappointed by the second half of “The East” after its very strong opening. Visually, the film has expanded from “Sound Of My Voice”, with “The East” taking place over more locations than the earlier film and this is one aspect of the film that Batmanglij succeeds in because the film does look great, with its dark and dingy production design and its appropriately bleak cinematography.
Overall, “The East” ended up being a bit of a disappointment due to the film not living up to its brilliant opening half. While I was expecting the film to be biting and full of anger, with a strong political bent, it sadly devolved into more of a human drama that was nowhere near as satisfying. The longer the film goes on, the less interesting it got, to the point that it limped to its unsatisfying conclusion. I love Brit Marling but this was the worst of the three films she has co-written and starred in, although ironically, it was the one with the most potential. “The East” is not a disaster but it is a disappointment and was not the best way to end MIFF for 2013.