The East (Fox Searchlight Pictures, PG-13)

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theeast 75Although I was engaged throughout, and a couple of those early cult scenes were pretty great, the problem is that the film lacks focus.

 

theeast 500 

I saw the trailer for The East around the same time that I saw the trailer for The Purge, and in the months since, I’ve had no idea which was which. They both had short, simple, forgettable titles. They both seemed to involve shady groups of people in weird masks (the masks in The East are only present in one scene, but they were a big part of the trailer) exacting some kind of vengeance on rich people. Having now seen both films, I can say that they are not very similar at all, but they do both fit loosely into the same genre: thrillers with a social conscience. The East is much more artsy and The Purge is much more trashy, but I think that, ultimately, my reaction to them is the same.

The East stars actress and co-writer Brit Marling as an employee of a seemingly privately owned intelligence firm who is sent undercover to infiltrate an anarchist revolutionary group called The East. The East is gaining a reputation for striking out against big corporations which they feel have done wrong. While undercover, Marling begins to bond with these activists and question whether she is on the right team.

The East feels less like an organized activist group, and more like a cult. The idea of infiltrating a cult will sound familiar to those who saw this director Zal Batmanglij’s first film, Sound of My Voice, which also starred and was co-written by Marling. These scenes are the strongest of the film. There’s a surreal power to them in which we are introduced to this world. A dinner where everyone wears straightjackets stands out as a pretty spectacular standalone sequence. These early scenes are reminiscent not only of Sound of My Voice, but of the cult in Martha Marcy May Marlene. They are effective, but they set up the film for an uphill battle as Marling, our audience avatar, begins to grow attached to this group and think that they actually are doing things the right way.

The biggest problem with The East is that it aims for ambiguity while feeling pretty one-sided. If you were confused by my description of the company Marling works for, it’s because the movie is very unclear about it. The company is basically portrayed as a soulless corporation that protects other soulless corporations. The members of The East are shown in a very warm, humanizing light, whereas their targets are mostly relegated to shady figures on television who choose to just kind of hide until all this blows over.

We are meant to like The East and agree with what they are doing. The problem is, I don’t. Their ideals are commendable. Big corporations which take advantage of people or poison the environment should be brought to justice, but that doesn’t mean that they should be poisoned. Later in the film, when a company is suspected of dumping waste into a local lake, The East kidnaps two of the higher-ups with the intent of making them swim in the toxic lake. This is the closest and most intimate we get with The East’s targets, and I was sure that this would be the moment where Marling realizes that she has gone too far. But that doesn’t really happen. 

In one scene, Marling pulls a half-eaten apple out of a trash can, explains how wasteful people are, and takes a bite. I—and most of the other people in the audience—thought that was gross, but the way it’s played feels like we are supposed to applaud her for that. Maybe I’m just misinterpreting the film, but I don’t think the audience will end up feeling as conflicted as the protagonist.

I’m not saying that The East is a bad film. It is certainly well made. The acting is strong across the board. Marling is a strange leading lady, but she has an intriguing, indefinable quality and she’s obviously very talented. I was engaged throughout, and a couple of those early cult scenes are pretty great. The problem is that the film lacks focus. There isn’t much progression to the story once it gets going. Like The Purge, it has some interesting ideas, but it addresses those ideas without any subtlety, and even then it doesn’t really seem to know what it wants to say.

One last thing: I had a thought within the first few moments of the film that made it difficult for me to take this movie as seriously as it wants to be taken. The film opens with shots of animals covered in oil and a voiceover emphatically stating that corporations should not be allowed to get away with this. 

This reminded me of a great moment from the TV show Community. For those who don’t know, one of the main characters on Community is a failed activist named Britta. In one episode, Britta sets up an elaborate display in the middle of the school’s quad to protest the BP oil spill. As she loudly and obnoxiously yells at people to wake up and get angry, one passerby tells her that she doesn’t need to shout because “no one is on the other side of this issue.” In another episode, Britta becomes friends with another girl who is exactly like her. The other characters in the show refer to her as “the other Britta”—and she is played by Brit Marling. | Sean Lass

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