Review: The East (Batmanglij, 2013)

Still from the movie The East

Surprise, surprise—another Sundance movie with Brit Marling (see Another Earth, I Origins). It seems like certain actors work almost exclusively on projects that end up at Sundance (e.g. John Hawkes, Elizabeth Olsen, etc.). But this film has a much more Hollywood vibe to me (much like I Origins did). A thriller following a private intelligence agent embedded in an eco-terrorist cell, The East has all the pleasures and failings of a mainstream thriller.

First, the pleasures: It’s fast-paced. It builds. Its plot is twisty. The eco-terrorism angle makes the characters more relatable and the subject matter less political than if the movie had focused on a different kind of terrorist group. I always love watching Ellen Page (she plays one of the eco-terrorists). Brit Marling is convincing in her role, even if her character’s motivations are sometimes opaque. Alexander Skarsgård manages to be both creepy and vulnerable.

Second, the failings: Almost every thriller has plot holes, aspects that don’t make sense upon deeper inspection, and they all rely on the thrill to distract you from penetrating too deeply. Almost every thriller is a little thin on character development, too. In both cases, The East is no exception, though I judge it’s better than most. I won’t go into the first point because it would involve too many spoilers, but, to elaborate on the second point, the central character is a puzzle to me. In some scenes she seems too innocent for her job. She’s supposed to be confident, assertive, smart, daring—how then can she be so ignorant of the realities of the work she’s doing? That’s where I felt Hollywood’s finger the most—in the character’s “transformation.” Feel-good, but dangerously naïve.

All in all, I’d say watch it. It’s entertaining and smarter and more thoughtful than most suspenseful thrillers. And, you know, maybe we do need a new world order.

Notes: 1) Check out If a Tree Falls (Sundance 2011 documentary) for a real portrayal of an “eco-terrorist” group (the Earth Liberation Front). 2) What? Is that Shiloh Fernandez again? I completely didn’t recognize him here; he looks nothing like he did in White Bird in a Blizzard. Must be the make-up.