Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director: Zal Batmanglij
Screenwriter: Zal Batmanglij, Brit Marling
Cast: Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgard, Ellen Page, Toby Kebbell, Shiloh Fernandez, Julia Osmond, Patricia Clarkson
Screened at: Fox, NYC, 5/14/13
Opens: May 31, 2013
The Department of Homeland Security lists the Animal Liberation Front as a domestic terror organization. This group would go further than the more moderate animal rights organizations like PETA and the Humane Society by breaking into laboratories and freeing monkeys and other animals are kept for experimentation. The ALF is an example of a well-meaning group driven to extreme measures under the belief that anything more moderate will not work. In the film “The East,” Zal Batmangli, known before for “Sound of My Voice” (a journalist and his girlfriend get pulled into a cult whose leader claims to be from the future), does not wander far from this concept, this time portraying a company hired to infiltrate a radical group of environmentalists. While the Animal Liberation Front limits itself to rescuing imprisoned animals, these environmentalists known as The East have a broader canvas, seeking an eye for an eye against corporations that poison our water, supply drugs with disastrous side effects, making money by actions that result in brain damage and death.
But “The East,” however political in scope, is interested more in providing the audience with the experience of a thriller, filled with tension and some ingenious twists, generally offering us an intelligent work that respects its viewers. Aside from a crackerjack script, allowing us to believe everything we see however the reliance on coincidences to work, “The East” is graced with some terrific performances particularly from Brit Marling, its star, co-writer, and producer. Marling was recently seen in Nicholas Jarecki’s “Arbitrage,” about a hedge magnate who has committed fraud, making her current venture right up her alley.
Marling performs in the role of Sarah, hired by a company led by Sharon (Patricia Clarkson) to infiltrate a group considered by that company to be engaged in anarchism, more specifically in eco-terrorism. She joins members getting a free ride in a train and is accepted as a soul mate, though Izzy (Ellen Page), its most fanatical member, is suspicious, her concerns overridden by the Benji (Alexander Skarsgard), the good looking leader.
In the movie’s most endearing scene, she is required to don a straitjacket like the others in a test of her eating style. Will she be communal and use the large wooden spoon picked up by mouth to feed the person to her left, or will she feed herself, lapping the gruel like a dog? She joins in a couple of the groups “jams,” in one instance giving the corporate suits a taste of their own toxic drug while in another venture she shows the bigwigs what it’s like to take a quick swim in waters that their corporation has polluted.
The audience will be a step ahead of the characters, guessing that Stockholm Syndrome will kick in, wherein (like a kidnapped Patti Hearst who grew to identify with a radical group’s goals) Sarah will have to choose. Will she give Sharon, her employer, what she wants, or will she go to another extreme by outing the spy group to the radicals, thereby opening them up to the eco group’s retribution? In making a decision, it doesn’t hurt that she falls for Benji, a more exciting lad than her boyfriend back home. Then again Sharon had advised her that you can spend time even with a neo-Nazi group and begin to identify with what they preach.
At one point near the conclusion, Sarah demonstrates how the group’s ethos has penetrated her soul, though the example she gives is facetious. Taking a partly-eaten apple out of the wastebasket of a prosperous company, she rails against the person—standing in for the rest of us—who would not finish the fruit but instead wastes most of it. Well, what should you do when you’re satisfied with a couple of bites of the apple? Force yourself to finish it, or perhaps put it on ice? Symbolically, she notes, Americans throw out a lot of perfectly good food, which is a point made for quite a while by dumpster divers who are too poor to buy fresh eats or, in the rare case of The East, dine on dumpster food as a matter of ideology.
Still, despite the fanaticism of The East, which can lead an audience to condemn their actions as much as its does the corporations that poison us, this film satisfies mostly from its capacity as a thriller.
Rated PG-13 116 minutes © 2013 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – B+