The East

Posted by Michael Parsons on June 10, 2013 in / No Comments


“The East” might have the most intriguing premise of any film I’ve seen so far this year. Breaking down genre barriers while not overtly attempting to revolutionize any of them, director Zal Batmanglij, who co-wrote the film with its star Brit Marling, approaches divisive subjects like the environment, religion and capitalism from an unusually off-kilter perspective. There’s a clear message in this atypical spy thriller, though it’s not delivered with the annoying obviousness of a political agenda; rather, it’s as if Marling and Batmanglij played devil’s advocate rigorously with one another on every plot point before allowing it into the script, conveying to the audience a refreshing, educated confidence. The result is a smart and edgy story that transcends some of its late-in-the-game inconsistencies, an espionage picture bolstered by a slick, thorough character study.

slide show the east filmMarling (“Arbitrage”) plays Sarah, an ex-FBI agent who’s hired by a private security firm that specializes in thwarting corporate terrorism. She’s sent undercover to identify and infiltrate a group of extremists who live by an anti-consumerist ideology and periodically wreak havoc on oil and pharmaceutical companies (among other massive corporations). After scouring the coast for groups that fit the profile, Sarah meets Luca (Shiloh Fernandez, “Evil Dead”) during an encounter with the police and becomes immersed in a sub-culture of “Freegans” – environmentally conscious people who survive on discarded food and other resources to avoid leaving a carbon footprint (which Marling actually practiced in preparation for the role).

101842_galThis is the peaceful tip of the monstrously aggressive, anti-establishment iceberg. Luca introduces Sarah to Benji (Alexander Skarsgård, “Disconnect”) and Izzy (Ellen Page, “Inception”), the leaders of the collective of anarchists known as The East. This group resides in a secluded corner of the woods, and initially seem like a peaceful hippie community (with Skarsgård sporting the unkempt look of cult leader), but at the same time are a tech-savvy, calculating group of activists who take the saying “taste of their own medicine” quite literally. I’d like to think that their computer equipment is at least refurbished.

If moments in “The East” are predictable, they might prove to be a respite from the sustained intensity of the film, which should be attributed to incredible performances by all, including Marling, who I imagine will start hearing her name a lot in February. Unlike Sarah’s boss (an icy suit played by Patricia Clarkson, “Shutter Island”), who is a pretty black-and-white picture of an evil corporate puppet master, The East, at least at some point, appear to have an admirable purpose.  The trick of the whole thing is understanding the hypocrisy of both sides, whether or not you agree with their intentions. It’s not how the film unfolds that’s such a surprise, nor are the moral dilemmas that present themselves anything we haven’t seen. It’s that Marling and Batmanglij (who collaborated in the same capacity on 2011’s “Sound Of My Voice”) know exactly what they’re saying, and though the revelation isn’t exactly life changing (at least as far as film experiences go), they don’t overcomplicate its relatively fundamental point. What really impresses is the language – it’s intelligent and almost always dead serious, but it’s never pretentious.

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Michael Parsons

Father. Realtor®. Movie nut. After pestering my parents for their commentary on “Star Wars” when I was four years old, my mind went into a creative frenzy. I’d imagined something entirely different than the actual film, which I didn’t end up seeing until its 1979 re-release at the Uptown Theater in Washington, DC. This was my formal introduction to the cinema.

During that long wait, which felt like an eternity to a child, my mind was being molded by more corrosive stuff like “Trilogy of Terror” and “Rosemary’s Baby”, most of which I’d conned various babysitters into letting me watch on television ( I convinced one poor lady that “Jaws” was actually “Moby Dick”).

The folks were pretty strict in that regard, so the less appropriate it was for a kid to watch, the more I was fascinated by it. Horror staples like “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th”, as well as lesser-known low-budget fare like “Madman”, “Sleepaway Camp” and “Pieces” all ended up sneaking their way into the VHS on a regular basis.

Since then, I’ve developed an obsession with the entire film industry. Even though I watch and review a wide breadth of films these days, my appreciation for the campy, poorly lit micro-budgeters still lends itself to my evolving perspective on movies just as much as the summer blockbusters and Oscar contenders. As I recall my trips to the movie theater, I realize that this stuff is about much more than just a fleeting piece of entertainment.

A couple years ago, I was finally given the opportunity to lend my opinion on films to a publication, The Rogers Revue, with a subsequent run at Reel Film News. It's been both a privilege and a gateway to what we’re doing now. Most of my experience has come from interviewing independent filmmakers, who consistently promote innovation. The filmmaking process is grueling and relatively unforgiving.

Fellow film enthusiast Eddie Pasa and I have created DC Filmdom as a medium for film reviews, discussion, and (inevitably) some debate. And so, the creative frenzy continues.

(Michael is a member of the Washington, DC Area Film Critics Association).

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