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Review: The East (Sundance)

Jan. 24, 2013by: Chris Bumbray

PLOT: An undercover operative (Britt Marling) for a private security group is sent to infiltrate a radical cell of activist extremists- called “The East”. As she gets deeper and deeper into the cell, her cover is jeopardized when she falls in love with their charismatic leader (Alexander Skarsgard).

REVIEW: THE EAST is another Sundance entry that caught me completely off-guard, in that whatever I was expecting it to be ended up being radically different from what I got- and I mean that in the best possible way. I liked director Zal Batmanglij's last film, THE SOUND OF MY VOICE, but even it's most ardent fans would admit it's an acquired taste. I assumed THE EAST would be another wildly unconventional effort- but to my surprise, that's not at all what THE EAST is.

Rather, it's a rock-solid techno-thriller, that's extremely polished and fairly lavish in scope. I guess I had pigeonholed Batmanglij as a one kind of filmmaker, but I have to admit this is the most effective and polished jump into the mainstream since Christopher Nolan's early films. Am I saying Batmanglij's the next Nolan? That might be premature- but THE EAST offers compelling evidence.

Along with Batmanglij, THE EAST marks a big move for leading lady Brit Marling, who also wrote the screenplay with Batmanglij. Usually, Marling comes off as ethereal or somewhat otherworldly- which worked beautifully in SOUND OF MY VOICE and ANOTHER EARTH, but her nuanced work in THE EAST is another class altogether, and the type of role that makes someone into an A-list star providing it crosses over.

In that regard, if any film I've seen at Sundance 2013 has the chance to cross over it's THE EAST. Marling's part feels very much in the tradition of other agent provocateur leading ladies, like Claire Danes in HOMELAND, and Jessica Chastain in ZERO DARK THIRTY. But here- rather than an affiliation with a government agency, she's essentially a mercenary, or private contractor. Her company, run by a cold-blooded Patricia Clarkson, isn't even slightly interested in protecting anything other than the conservative, big money companies that hire them. In the start, Marling is squarely on their side, with her conservative Christian values making her an agent that's very interested in keeping the status quo. It's an interesting contrast to Danes and Chastain- who are crusaders for what they believe is right. Marling's is too- even if her beliefs are skewed.

The most interesting aspect of THE EAST is the fact that the so-called “terrorist-group” Marling's trying to infiltrate is almost entirely sympathetic. Their interest is in using “jams” to discredit the companies that poison the world, be it pharmaceutical companies that push deadly drugs, or energy companies that poison water supplies. This is driven home by an affecting subplot involving The East's resident doctor, played by Toby Kebbell, who- after taking medicine he was using on an aid mission to Africa, ruined his nervous system, to the point that he has to use superglue to treat wounds as his hands are too shaky to make stitches.

As their leader, Skarsgard is ideal. Let's face it- the giant, Nordic Skarsgard has always looked somewhat super-human, and it's totally convincing that this imposing figure could lead people anywhere- although his compassion and refusal to indoctrinate his members make this far from a cult of personality. A surprisingly hardened Ellen Page plays his number two, who later orchestrates a jam of her own that leads to one of the film's most impacting and devastating set pieces.

THE EAST happens to be Scott-Free production, meaning that it's one of the last films we'll ever see that's associated with the great Tony Scott. I couldn't help but feel throughout like this would have been a movie he would have been proud to be associated with- as this has the same kind of intensity his best vehicles have. That said, Batmanglij never tries to ape his technique, with the cutting being subtle, and the visuals being in the same warm tradition of SOUND OF MY VOICE. I really feel like THE EAST has huge crossover potential- way beyond the art-house film crowd. It's the type of thriller that should hit 2000 screens and play to a huge audience. Hopefully people will embrace it- but whatever the case, it can't be denied Batmanglij and Marling have made a big move into the same kind of smart, ambitious, yet broadly entertaining type of film that people like George Clooney and Ben Affleck do so well. This is one to get excited about.

 

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