I didn’t expect to enjoy The East, but I didn’t not want to, and I didn’t try not to like it. I want to like things. I have a sincere desire to see improvement in people who have the courage and strength to create things. Sadly, what I was hoping to see has not developed since writer Brit Marling and director Zak Batmanglij’s previous film, Sound of My Voice. The East looks a little better, the pacing is better, the acting is certainly stronger. Yet, their film is still empty and a specific brand of poison cooked up for my generation by weak minds. It’s a poison made of stupidity posing as intelligence.
The East is what I imagine an extremely privileged and protected teenager with no notion as to how the world works thinks the Occupy Wall Street movement is growing into. A collective of runaways living off the grid plan what they refer to as “jams”, plotted acts of domestic “eye-for-an-eye” terrorism aimed at those running massive corporations that are causing great harm to the environment and other humans for the sake of huge profits. Brit Marling plays an agent working for some under-explained company that sends her into the collective undercover as Sarah to gather information and lead to their arrests. As Sarah spends time with them, she begins to doubt her mission and realize absolutely no one has good intentions.
There are so many gaps in the logic of The East, I don’t even want to begin discussing them. Let me just say, I’m pretty sure an undercover agent would never, ever admit to being undercover to someone they have just met and are spying on for practically no reason at all. This is one of the first things that Sarah does when she enters the collective, and luckily enough, the girl who knows her secret simply exits the movie, opening a spot for Sarah to participate in the jams.
The only character granted an ounce of compassion in this film is Sarah. Every single other character seems unable to comprehend the weight of a human life or have the ability to express conflicting morals. The characters are given enough to do and say to have the appearance of dimensionality, but there’s absolutely nothing there. Singular drive, singular motivation, no growth. They seem to behave like a family in some ways, although most of the behavior is aimed at allowing Marling to embrace them. The few times anything deeper is hinted at, it falls apart moments later.
Ellen Page almost saves her scenes by being an incredible actress, infusing her character Izzy with some believability. The anger she manages to conjure up in her performance is possibly the only organic element of the film, and aside from one other, Izzy’s anger is the only legitimate emotion in The East.
The second legitimate emotion is the guilt and shame Sarah experiences because of the actions she is committing. There is not nearly enough time devoted to this, as it could be the most interesting aspect of the movie. It is, for the most part, expressed in a scene in which she breaks down crying while attempting to perform an everyday activity, which is jogging. Jogging is seemingly the only thing Sarah does aside from work. This theme of her shame is peppered into other scenes as well, but is not dealt with with the same honesty as this moment.
Sometimes, writers can be criticized for spelling too much out, but this is an example of the opposite. Sarah’s conflicts are exactly what she should be discussing aloud with the other characters. Emotional conflict within characters is the heart of real development, and there’s a real lack of heart here.
I wanted to attempt to write this review without tearing into Marling the way I did in my review of her previous feature, but the way she glorifies herself in her films makes it near impossible. The last real shot of the The East is a glowing Marling gazing into the camera, knowing that she’s the only one grand enough to make a difference. It’s disgusting.
I also wanted to attempt to not spend a lot of this review drawing comparisons between this film and Sound of My Voice, but again, it’s very hard not to as they are extremely similar films. Someone on a mission has to infiltrate a cult. The cult is not what it appears to be. The difference here is instead of being the cult leader, this time Marling is the spy. So, obviously, the cult leader becomes enamored with her because she’s so fantastic. It doesn’t matter what role she’s playing in her film, everyone has to fall in love with her because she’s Brit Marling.
The big-eyed, beautiful, and fantastically tall Alexander Skarsgård plays the leader of The East. And a lot of potentially interesting ideas are scrapped for trying to force an unbelievable romance between the two.
If you’re going to make an empty movie, why pose it as something more? Why not build up the sex, suspense, and intrigue? Why not make a frivolous spy movie; there’s not even need to lose the backdrop of domestic terrorists trying to take down evil corporations. I don’t actually need to ask these questions, because I know the answer: Batmanglij and Marling don’t realize they aren’t making an intelligent movie. They think this crap is poignant.
Deep down, the real problem with The East is how much of the world it seems ignorant to. To treat an audience like they are so stupid and living in a world that is so stupid is a crime. To neglect the ways that the small groups of people who actually are combating the evils in our society is a crime. To imagine that so few have the ability to be compassionate and make a difference via things like knowledge and love is offensive and a crime. And to treat these issues as one dimensional is just plain stupid.
After all that, there’s one real passion hidden in the movie; one true idea that Marling had, that I know she thought herself, and needed to communicate so badly, a whole film grew around it: we throw out a lot of edible food.
The East is really just a movie about Brit Marling eating garbage. I hope she enjoys it.