Apologies in advance, folks, but this one’s going to get a bit political. If that’s not a problem, then read on.
To this day, I still hang my sorry little head when I have to explain who Brit Marling is. Not only is she a very beautiful woman, but she’s proven to be a wonderfully talented multi-hypenate with so many brilliant and bold ideas. Even when Marling appears in something that she didn’t personally write and/or co-produce (as in Arbitrage, The Company You Keep, and her guest appearance as a faux lesbian on “Community”), she shows a delightful inclination toward projects and roles that are more intelligent and daring than most cinematic fare. Her lack of mainstream recognition is therefore understandable, but dammit, Marling deserves more success than she’s gotten and we need more showbiz talents like her who are willing to take risks.
Luckily, it appears that Marling has found herself a very high-profile sponsor. Her latest film was produced by none other than Ridley Scott, working through his “Scott Free” shingle. This is presumably how Marling was able to secure the cooperation of Alexander Skarsgard, Ellen Page, Patricia Clarkson, and Jason Ritter, any one of whom would have more star power than Another Earth and Sound of My Voice put together.
Oh, and here’s a nice bit of irony for you: This film was distributed by Fox Searchlight. I almost laughed my ass off when I learned about that. Fox Searchlight — a sister company to the notoriously business-friendly Fox News — is distributing this angry movie about a violent proletariat uprising.
The East tells the story of Jane, alias Sarah Moss (Brit Marling), who works as a sort of undercover spy for hire. She’s assigned to infiltrate an anarchist collective/domestic terrorist group that’s inexplicably called “The East.” At the start of the movie, we see that The East recently broke into the house of a wealthy oil tycoon and flooded his house with crude, as retribution for a massive oil spill that happened out at sea. This being the internet age, The East broadcast footage of their little stunt with the promise that three other corporate heads will soon have to pay for their crimes. Sarah’s job is to find out who the other three targets are and how The East can be stopped as quickly as possible. Whether she actually wants to succeed by the end is of course another matter entirely.
However, because Sarah doesn’t work for the government, her assignment has nothing to do with serving the public interest or ensuring that justice is done. No, Sarah works for a private intelligence contractor, which effectively means that she’s serving rich and powerful corporate heads who’ve been made paranoid by The East. As far as Sarah’s boss (Sharon, played by Patricia Clarkson) is concerned, it doesn’t really matter who The East goes after, so long as they don’t go after one of her clients. No exaggerating, Sharon basically says as much in those exact words. She’s only looking out for the bottom line, either apathetic or willfully ignorant about everything else, just like those people The East are trying to hold accountable.
The East themselves, on the other hand, turn out to be a commune of drifters, living off the perfectly good food that civilization throws away. Their de facto leader is a fellow named “Benji” (Alexander Skarsgard), who’s quite charismatic and handsome in a wolfish kind of way, though he has a nasty habit of putting his mission before the lives of his comrades. His lieutenant is “Izzy” (Ellen Page), easily the most militant and outspoken about her deep loathing for the bourgeoisie. A close second in that regard would be “Thumbs” (Aldis Hodge), who seems to have no problem in killing to get the message out. “Tess” (Danielle Macdonald) is the resident tech expert as well as the de facto mother figure, though “Luca” (Shiloh Fernandez) provides a great deal of nurturing emotional support as well. There’s also “Doc” (Toby Kebbell), the group’s medical officer, though some bad prescription drugs have left him with tremors to the point where he can barely perform any actual surgery. Last but not least is “Eve” (Hillary Baack), who has a great deal of emotional damage to go with her hearing loss.
(Side note: If you’re wondering why I used all the quotation marks up there, it’s because we’re explicitly told that no one in The East uses their real name.)
Just from the last couple of paragraphs, you may already have guessed at one of the film’s major problems. Note that the conflict of this movie pits a monolithic group of people with monetary gain as their sole purpose in life, against a ragtag group of fleshed-out and sympathetic characters.
While watching this movie, I was reminded of a George Clooney film called The Ides of March that came out a few years back. Much like The East, that movie was made to voice a great deal of frustration with the broken status quo. It was a heavy drama made to show all the ways that our political system is flawed. And precisely because it was a heavy drama, it vanished into the ether very quickly.
The film was so caught up in its own message that it portrayed everything in black-and-white terms. There was a very clear line between what the filmmakers supported and didn’t support, so the latter was more or less portrayed as outright evil. There was a great deal of hatred and spite in that movie, and hatred about this particular subject isn’t all that interesting to watch. We’ve reached the point where we live with hatred for the upper class every single day. As such, when a movie doesn’t really have anything to say except variations on the theme of “corruption is bad,” the audience is just going to sit there and say “well, duh.” The end result is a movie that wasn’t nearly as incisive as it thought it was. The film got preachy, to put it simply, and its sermon was one that we already knew by heart.
All of these complaints, needless to say, can be levelled against The East as well. In fact, it’s even more harmful in this particular case because the movie is a “double agent” story by nature. When we’re watching a movie about someone playing both sides, we should be wondering which side that character will come down on when worse comes to worse. In this movie, that’s never in question. Though the film might try to pretend otherwise, we all know exactly who Sarah will throw her support behind when the time comes.
Getting back to my previous point, I can understand how people are angry against those who cheat the system to stay rich and powerful while the rest of the country crumbles. That said, I believe that the best way to express this anger isn’t with drama, but with comedy. This is why In the Loop and The Daily Show are modern satirical classics, while nobody remembers The Ides of March only two years after its release. Hell, I’d argue that The Campaign was a better takedown of modern elections than Ides was.
It’s my personal belief that modern politics and corporate business aren’t a great tragedy, but a bad joke. Some people see mustache-twirling villains who actively want to destroy the world, but I just see a bunch of small-minded buffoons too short-sighted to realize what a mess they’re making. In any case, I’ve seen enough of politics to know that if you’re a stubborn extremist on one side or another, chances are good that you’re either an idiot or a pawn being played by someone else. Possibly both.
This is why I prefer comedy to drama when it comes to political/economic diatribes. In general, drama forces a choice between two equally awful sides. In comedy, it’s much easier to say “Fuck ‘em both, everyone’s an asshole!”
In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that the movie does leave some room for ambiguity at the end. Alas, by the time anyone finds a middle road, the credits have rolled. No joke, the ultimate solution is by far the most interesting one in the movie, and we only learn about it through a series of still images that play over the credits. As such, I’m not particularly inclined to count it.
With all of that aside, it’s not like the movie is completely without intellectual merit. Even if it comes up woefully short on answers, this picture still brings up a great deal of questions that we should be asking. More than that, it’s not just any filmmaker who can speak out so fervently against our corporate-run society (especially under a News Corporation banner), and I respect that kind of ballsiness.
But more than anything else, I like The East’s methods. Through most of the film, you see, their MO is to take products that are known to be hazardous and expose them to the very people who publicly swear that their products are safe. The logic goes that if these corporate thugs are telling the truth, then they’ve got nothing to worry about. There’s a clever and satisfying kind of justice to that line of thinking, and there’s a kind of heist-like thrill in watching The East put their plans into action.
In fact, The East is pretty much the only reason to see this movie. It was genuinely interesting to learn more about these characters and their unusual lifestyle off the grid. It also helped that the film took some time to show us a few scenes that served absolutely no greater purpose than to show bonding between members. It was a trick that Brit Marling and her co-writer/director, Zal Batmanglij, had previously used to great effect in Sound of My Voice.
(Side note: That previous movie was about a couple of amateur documentarians who infiltrate a cult headed by Marling’s character. In this movie, Marling is the character who’s infiltrating a cult. I have no idea if this swap was intentional, but it’s interesting nonetheless.)
On a similar note, there’s the matter of Jason Ritter’s character. He plays Tim, Sarah’s (boyfriend? husband?) significant other. Take the guy out of the movie and absolutely nothing would change in terms of plot. However, Tim does serve as a neat way to show Sarah’s growing disconnect with life outside The East. He helps to show us how the job is affecting her. It’s a role that Ritter plays very nicely, though I can’t help feeling like his talent was wasted on a character that demanded so little.
Additionally, there are a few times when the movie takes a few too many “time outs” for its own good. A sterling example comes late in the movie, when a member of The East dies. Between the death and the funeral, two other members engage in a good long sex scene. Seriously, it happens in that exact order, one right after the other: death/sex scene/funeral. Maybe it’s just me, but that seems like a very awkward place to put a gratuitous sex scene.
On a similar note, the editing is terribly uneven. Though the camerawork has a subtle kind of “cinema verite” feel, the editing is loaded with quick cutaways that are very jarring in execution. It’s possible that the point was to be unnerving, but the approach still does a lot more harm than good.
Finally, tremendous props are due to the cast. Brit Marling is always a delight to watch, and it certainly helps that she isn’t afraid of doing things on camera that most of us would either be afraid or embarrassed to attempt on film. Alexander Skarsgard is pitch-perfect as the group’s leader, capable of showing great compassion and unflinching immorality in equal measure. Even so, Ellen Page nearly steals the movie. Page really turns up the insanity for this movie, and anyone who’s seen Super can tell you what sparks fly when Ellen Page decides to go full-on bonkers. The weak link is probably Patricia Clarkson, but she does the best she can with such a thin character.
All told, I’d say that The East is worth a rental. The film suffers for being way less profound and ambiguous than it thinks it is or could have been. Even so, the film examines a subject that’s absolutely worth talking about, even if it doesn’t really have anything new to say. It also helps that the movie has such an extraordinary cast, and the central concept of The East is very interesting in its execution.
I’d say that it’s definitely a film worth watching, though I wouldn’t call it a film worth raving about.