Film festival buzz is a tricky thing. It’s common for some of the best titles of the year to get their start at places like Sundance, SXSW, Cannes, or Toronto - but sometimes audiences simply get swept up in the premiere festivities, and once the movie leaves the festival atmosphere flaws that were once ignored start getting pointed out and noticed. Going into the theater to see Zal Batmanglij’s The East, I remembered how much positive buzz the film received at this year’s Sundance, and while it doesn’t fully live up to its reputation, it’s still an impressive sophomore effort for the director and his co-writer Brit Marling.
Those who made fun of James Cameron’s Avatar for having a plot similar to films like Dances With Wolves and Pocahontas will be able to break out some of their old material for The East, as it once again brings back that familiar storyline. Marling stars as Jane, a former FBI agent who moves to the private sector for a job working at one of the world’s most elite private intelligence firms. When corporations start being hit by attacks from an anarchist eco-terrorism collective called The East, Jane is called in to infiltrate the underground organization and expose its members. Hiding behind the pseudonym “Sarah,” the protagonist is successful in getting the group, and its leader, Benji (Alexander Skarsgard), to trust her and let her join. But as all heroes do in these kinds of stories, Jane begins to question her allegiances and must decide if she is working for the good guys or the bad guys.
At this point you may feel tempted to write the film off as a typical rote thriller, but Batmanglij and Marling are able to give their story worth by tweaking very key aspects of that familiar storyline. Rather than give in to the easy, preachy message of “the eco-terrorists are right! We have to stop killing Mother Earth!” the movie is surprisingly even-handed. Yes, big corporations are exposed for rushing medicine production to make a quick buck and for destroying environments and communities with their horrific, toxic pollution, but how far is too far when it comes to an act of revenge? The morality is approached on fair ground, and could potentially create an interesting schism between the lead character and some members of the audience. The script puts an added twist on Jane’s decisions and loyalties, which prevents the plot from drifting into clone territory.
The nature of the story burdens Marling with just about all of the film’s emotional weight, but the indie star once again proves that she is a bona fide lead actress. She envelopes the character completely and sells her evolution perfectly –by the idea of eating food found in a dumpster behind a restaurant at the start of her assignment, and then eventually casually chowing down on a half-eaten apple taken out of a trash can, complaining about our wasteful society.
Unlike Sound of My Voice, which was populated largely with up-and-coming actors, The East has a supporting cast stacked with household names, and their performances remind us of why we know who they are. Skarsgard is perfectly cast as the leader of the organization and puts on a charismatic performance that makes it easy to understand how “Sarah” would be so charmed and influenced. Ellen Page and Toby Kebbell play familiar archetypes, the former portraying the young, emotional radical and the latter being the group’s slightly-damaged doctor, but they both commit and give engaging, powerful performances (particularly Kebbell, who has a good ol’ fashioned traumatic backstory to work from). Patricia Clarkson and Jason Ritter give serviceable turns as Jane’s strict, business-oriented boss at the intelligence film and her loving, in-the-dark boyfriend, respectively, but they are also clearly left on the less-interesting half of the movie’s two-sided plot.
The East shows real growth in Batmanglij and Marling as filmmakers, and while the movie’s plot isn’t wholly original, it’s their approach and the story’s outcome – which I won’t spoil here – that makes the movie worthwhile. The duo seem to be taking on bigger and more ambitious projects now that they have some momentum, and I look forward to seeing what they deliver next.