Walking into this Sundance The East, the new film from Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, was what excited me the most. Walking out of it, it’s the film that has disappointed me most completely. The East isn’t just a disappointment, it’s actually pretty bad, and is fatally naive.
Marling and Batmanglij conquered Sundance two years ago with Sound of My Voice, one of the best low budget scifi movies I’ve seen in years. Marling’s performance was hypnotic, and the film’s conceit was intriguing from start through the brain-tickling ending. Batmanglij directed and co-wrote with his star, and I thought that perhaps this was a team that could be counted on for some more truly great films - if SOMV was where they started, what came next would be very exciting.
But The East is a bust, right from the start. Marling plays an ex-FBI agent who now works for a private security firm whose mission is to protect corporate clients from eco-terrorists and other disruptors of capitalism. She goes undercover with a group known as The East, who are in the middle of a series of ‘jams,’ ie actions that target corporate polluters. Marling’s character, a pro-authority Christian, slowly begins to understand where these radical anarchists are coming from.
The complaint I have isn’t that the film’s plot is obvious, but rather that it’s so poorly executed. Marling’s character is possibly the worst trained undercover agent in history - she tries to leave The East after they humiliate her in an initiation ceremony. Later she finally gets in deep enough to be involved in a ‘jam’ (a truly ludicrous bit of terminology repeated again and again) and freaks out when the operation begins. How was she trained to infiltrate radical groups but never received a single bit of training on how to handle SUCCESS?
The gauzy distance that Marling had as the cult leader in Sound of My Voice is present in The East, but feels less like a choice and more like an acting limitation. Her emptiness is in the script as well - Marling’s character manages to become a member of the group despite never espousing a single political thought. How The East made it this far is a mystery.
Like SOMV, The East is interested in closed group dynamics, and you’d think an eco-terrorist cell would present incredible opportunities for that exploration. But the members of the cell never feel like real people, and worse they feel like phony representations of eco-activists. It’s funny to watch films from the 60s that try to portray the burgeoning youth culture and end up with broadly painted cartoon hippies; the same feeling permeates The East, with its trust-fund hippies and silly freegans. The film has a Wikipedia-level understanding of activism, domestic terrorism and the people who are drawn to both, making every environmental message didactic and silly.
There are good performances in the film. Alexander Skarsgard shines as Benji, the leader of the leaderless group - at least once he gets out from under some really crummy Charles Manson-esque fake hair and beard. Benji is one of the only really interesting characters in the film, mostly because of the mix of drive and regret Skarsgard brings. He wants out of the revolution, but can never allow himself to quit. I also quite liked Toby Kebbel as Doc, the group’s medic; he has a great physicality that gives the character more depth than the script (each of the main members of The East have heavy-handed origin stories that deal with corporate malfeasance or capitalist corruption. There’s a Silver Age comic book quality to how closely everyone’s origin ties in with what their goals in the group are, making the already phony movie feel phonier).
Less successful is Ellen Page, as a hard-edged member of the group who exists only to give Marling's character some basic obstacles and to help chart her arc with the group. Page is fine, but this character feels like something she could do in her sleep, and requires so little from her that it could be nothing more than an extended cameo.
There are some slight spoilers here, so be aware: What makes The East most frustrating, even beyond the ham-handed eco-group and the poorly sketched characters, is the enormous naivety that permeates the film’s message. Batmanglij and Marling seem to think that just telling people in the corporate and government power structure that bad things are happening will lead to change, despite decades of active proof otherwise. The film has no understanding of how these things work, of how insidious the influence of corporate greed is on American politics and policy. Going by the film’s foolish conclusion the events of Love Canal should have put an end to all toxic pollution; instead I suspect that the filmmakers never even heard of Love Canal.
The East is a poorly written, thoroughly silly environmental movie for people who want to believe that tut-tutting over stories in Mother Jones is the same thing as making a difference.