Sometimes you’ve just got to give people time to develop. That’s a truism that goes both ways; you shouldn’t write people off without giving them a chance and you also shouldn’t give out praise pre-maturely just because someone shows a little bit of promise in projects that are otherwise problematic. That’s been the case with the Brit Marling/Zal Batmanglij/Mike Cahill filmmaking collective, which I’ve been less than complimentary towards up until now. I thought that Another Earth (written by Marling & Cahill, directed by Cahill) was a rather dull film that squandered a good high concept on what was ultimately a clichéd little indie-story, and that Sound of My Voice (written by Marling and Batmanglij, directed by Batmanglij) was a film that wasn’t half as smart as it thought it was and also suffered because it looked like it was filmed in someone’s basement. There was however a seed of something good in both of those movies, and I think the practice paid off. Their latest film, The East, isn’t exactly a calling card of some great new talent but it does seem to suggest that they’re ready to at least try to play with the big boys.
The film’s title refers to a fringe anarchist group called The East, which has gained infamy for having flooded an oil executive’s house with crude oil in retaliation for the company’s policies. The group has become so infamous that various corporations have contacted a private espionage agency called Hiller Brood to send people undercover to infiltrate the group and others like it. One of the agents they fire to do this is Sarah Moss (Brit Marling), an ambitious woman in her late twenties who they believe will have success blending in with counter-culture types. Indeed, it doesn’t take her long to find herself living in the run down cabin that The East has turned into their headquarters. It doesn’t take her long to gain the trust of their second-in-command Izzy (Ellen Page) and after she participates in one of the group’s anti-corporate missions she even gains the trust of the group’s ostensible leader Benji (Alexander Skarsgård). She seems to be in perfect position to shut the groups down when her boss gives the order, but she comes to realize that The East might be reacting to some legitimate grievances and it starts to become increasingly hard to tell who the “bad guy” is.
I could be mistaken, but I don’t really think there are actually all that many groups like “The East” in the real world. At least if they do exist I doubt they are successful enough at what they do to scare any companies into hiring under-cover agents to track them down. Pretty much the closest analogue I can think of is the Earth Liberation Group, an organization that was profiled a couple of years ago in a good documentary called If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front. Pretty much all that that group managed to accomplish over the course of their late-90s “spree” was a handful of arson attacks against a few small logging companies. What’s more, that group didn’t really operate in anywhere near as dramatic a fashion as “The East” does.
Of course whether or not organization in the film operates realistically isn’t really the point. This isn’t meant to be some sort of exposé of eco-terror so much as it’s meant to be a spy/undercover cop movie that happens to be set in a milieu that’s less clichéd than most. On that level the film is executed a lot better than Batmanglij and Marling’s previous work, in part simply because this is a generally larger production. The film was produced by Ridley Scott and his late brother Tony, and it’s clear that they gave the crew some good advice about how to make a film like this work. Additionally, the film gets some extra credibility by bringing some name actors like Alexander Skarsgård and Ellen Page into the mix. Brit Marling also holds her own pretty well amidst this more notable cast and I’m going to be interested in seeing what happens to her once she moves up from the indie world and gets hired to be some super hero’s girlfriend.
I also thought the film did a pretty good job of navigating the morality of the whole situation it depicts. The film never fully condones the relatively extreme actions of “The East,” but it never really turns them into full-on villains either. It also never loses sight of the fact that the group is not paranoid and that their corporate targets are, for the most part, genuine assholes who probably do deserve some kind of punishment even if it probably shouldn’t be in the form of dangerous terroristic pranks. The film’s politics actually reminds me of an old Chris Rock bit from the 90s where he lists out the litany of social offenses that Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman perpetrated against O.J. Simpson, and after each one stops and says “now I’m not saying he should have killed her, but I understand.” Similarly, this film seems to be going “I’m not saying people should perform vigilante attacks on multi-national corporations, but I understand.” And as someone who is also frustrated by how easily multi-billion dollar industries seem to get away with murder, I can sympathize with that attitude.
The East is not the best film about cult-like activity to come out of the independent scene in recent years, that would still probably be Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, but it’s a definite improvement over Sound of My Voice. As far as 70s style paranoid thrillers go there are also better options, but still, this is a good movie that does a good job of dealing with the widespread and mostly justified anti-corporate sentiment that’s been all too slowly growing in this country and around the world since the 2008 meltdown. I wouldn’t tell anyone to rush out too quickly to see it, but if you’re looking for something a little more subtle than the summer blockbusters but also a little more active than some of the artier counter-programming, this is a good option.
*** out of Four