The first images in “The East” – the new thriller from Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling, the team who made last year’s underrated cult thriller “Sound Of My Voice” – are grainy footage of intruders breaking into someone’s home juxtaposed with images of seagulls covered in oil. We are told through voiceover that this is the home of a CEO whose company was responsible for dumping millions of gallons of oil into the ocean. Our narrator (Ellen Page) is one of the members of an anarchist collective called The East, who are determined to enforce a strict eye-for-an-eye philosophy that will make their voices heard. The music pulses, the images are chilling and so we buckle up for a ride.
Outside of Washington D.C. we meet a young woman named Sarah (Marling) who works for a private intelligence organization responsible for tracking down these groups and infiltrating them. She lives with her boyfriend (Jason Ritter) who knows nothing about her line of work and tells her that she wasn’t even this secretive when she worked for the FBI. Sarah is incredibly smart and a little bit cocky, which is why her boss (Patricia Clarkson) selects her from a group of candidates to go undercover and try to infiltrate The East. She tells her boyfriend she’s going overseas and instead begins traveling around the Northeast, ingratiating herself with various street people and gutter punks. After a few weeks of eating out of the garbage, she meets up with Luca (Shiloh Fernandez) who, after Sarah helps him during a police attack, leads her to her targets.
She is blindfolded and led into the woods where she comes face to face with The East. After being treated for wounds she incurred during the fight, she is told to put on a straightjacket and join them for dinner. When she arrives she meets Benji (Alexander Skarsgård) who gives her a test: eat first and the others will follow. After struggling for a minute to bring the food to her mouth without the use of her arms, she eventually succeeds, pushing the spoon out of the way. But when the others join in, they do so in concert, passing the food to the next person with the utensils clenched between their teeth. The lesson here, is obvious. The group must work together as one unit. And while Izzy (Page) is skeptical about this new arrival to The East, Benji decides to keep her on.
Once plunged into the group, she’s offered another test but she must agree without knowing exactly what the outcome of her assistance will be. As it turns out, the group are staging a Jam (as they call their operations) to sneak into a party hosted by a drug company whose products are producing extremely harmful side effects. The mission is more than just idealogical, it’s personal as one of the members of their group, Doc (Toby Kebbell), suffers Parkinson’s-like side effects from the drug. The plan is to give them a taste of their own medicine quite literally and by the time Sarah realizes what’s about to take place, she can’t do anything to stop them. The group have two more operations to stage before they disappear, but from here on out it’s best to keep things spoiler-free. Suffice to say the lines of right and wrong start to blur the deeper that Sarah finds herself entangled in the group whose backgrounds may not be as humble as they may seem at first glance.
“The East” is a terrific companion piece for anyone who enjoyed “Sound Of My Voice.” It isn’t difficult to draw parallels between the two films with recurring motifs like cults, initiation rituals, blindfolds, sign language and more all brimming to the surface. At nearly two hours, the film is just slightly overlong and can be deeply silly at times, but nonetheless thoroughly entertaining. Some of the dialogue feels a bit on the nose while the self-seriousness makes some of the more melodramatic turns seem ridiculous. You can’t help but smile at exchanges like, ‘This is MY Jam” and “No, it’s OUR Jam” when it’s delivered with such conviction. Sharp viewers may put together where things are heading early but even though the last act fumbles things just a bit with perhaps one twist too many, it brings it back together for a thematically satisfying conclusion.
Despite my issues with the film, it’s stylish and sincere and comes from a personal place. Apparently Marling and Batmanglij spent a summer traveling around in a similar fashion to see if they could live for a few months without spending money. Though it functions as a thriller, the film still raises issues worth considering (even if they are surface level concerns). Though the script (by Batmanglij and Marling) could’ve used another polish, as a filmmaker, Batmanglij is still at the head of the class of up-and-coming directors. It’s great seeing him able to paint on a larger canvas here and provide Marling an opportunity to turn in another beguiling performance. “The East” is definitely a movie that’s going to divide people but it’ll be a conversation worth having. [B-]
This is a reprint of our review from the Sundance Film Festival.