Movie Reviews
12:29 pm
Fri May 31, 2013

Rediscover Your Inner Anarchist In The Anti-Corporate 'East'

The second collaboration between writer-director Zal Batmanglij and actress and co-writer Brit Marling is called The East, which happens to be the name of the movie's anti-corporate terrorist cult. Marling plays Sarah, an agent who infiltrates the group. She doesn't work for the FBI. Her employer is a private security and intelligence firm run by the sleek, profit-oriented Sharon, played by Patricia Clarkson. Its clients are Big Pharma, Big Oil, or Big Rich Any Corporation that, according to the group The East, poisons the world and everyone in it.

In outline, it's a standard conversion narrative — one of those melodramas in which someone on the morally wrong side has a spasm of conscience and maybe crosses over. Maybe. I don't want to say where Sarah ends up. The East is a romantic activist outlaw fantasy, but it has enough nuances and excellent actors with excellent hard-to-read faces to keep you guessing. It helped me rediscover my inner anarchist.

The key, I think, is that on the subject of cults, Batmanglij and Marling are genuinely and thrillingly ambivalent. Their less conventional first feature, Sound of My Voice, also centered on an underground group — in that case headed by Marling as a prophet who claimed to have traveled back in time from the future. The protagonists were documentary filmmakers pretending to join up — but under the spell of the cult's invasive rituals they lost their certainty.

So, of course, does Sarah in The East — and probably I would, too, given the coolness of the actors playing East-ers. The magnetic Alexander Skarsgard is the leader, Benji, and he's a soft-spoken dreamboat — but with secrets behind that facade. Ellen Page is wonderful as Izzy, who is suspicious and abrasive but finally heartbreaking in her commitment. Toby Kebbell is superb as a doctor whose experience with a poorly tested drug in Africa has led him to have seizures. That pharmaceutical company is the next target, the weapon its own product. Through all of this, we watch Sarah's face: Marling has a stillness that's riveting. It's no wonder that when she meets with Clarkson's Sharon — at one point on their building's roof — we don't know where her sympathies lie.

It's not a subtle film. And it's rigged. The East members bathe one another in a lake. They feed one another. They play trust games. They're a family — a little loony, a lot touchy-feely, but irresistible to those of us who still have counterculture dreams. The East might use dangerous outlaw tactics but is never in the context of the movie wrong. What, they ask, is worse: ejecting chemical waste into water that ends up giving children tumors or chucking lying CEOs into the same toxic soup and watching them sputter and flail? And what would be for someone like Sarah a judicious middle ground? What would be for us?

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Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

Brit Marling became an instant indie cinema star with the 2011 film "Another Earth," which she also co-wrote. She followed by starring in the sci-fi inflected drama "Sound of My Voice." In her new film, "The East," she plays an agent who poses as a radical activist to catch and eco-terrorist group. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: The second collaboration between writer-director Zal Batmanglij and actress and co-writer Brit Marling is called "The East," which happens to be the name of the movie's anti-corporate terrorist cult. Marling plays Sarah, an agent who infiltrates the group. She doesn't work for the FBI. Her employer is a private security and intelligence firm run by the sleek, profit-oriented Sharon, played by Patricia Clarkson.

Its clients are Big Pharma, Big Oil, or Big Rich Any Corporation that, according to the group The East, poisons the world and everyone in it. In outline, it's a standard conversion narrative - one of those melodramas in which someone on the morally wrong side has a spasm of conscience and maybe crosses over. Maybe.

I don't want to say where Sarah ends up. "The East" is a romantic activist outlaw fantasy, but it has enough nuances and excellent actors with excellent hard-to-read faces to keep you guessing. It helped me rediscover my inner anarchist. The key, I think, is that on the subject of cults, Batmanglij and Marling are genuinely and thrillingly ambivalent.

Their less conventional first feature, "Sound of My Voice," also centered on an underground group - in that case headed by Marling as a prophet who claimed to have traveled back in time from the future. The protagonists were documentary filmmakers pretending to join up, but under the spell of the cult's invasive rituals they lost their certainty.

So, of course, does Sarah in "The East," and probably I would too, given the coolness of the actors playing East-ers. The magnetic Alexander Skarsgard is the leader, Benji, and he's a soft-spoken dreamboat, but with secrets behind that facade. Ellen Page is wonderful as Izzy, who is suspicious and abrasive but finally heartbreaking in her commitment.

Toby Kebbell is superb as a doctor whose experience with a poorly tested drug in Africa has led him to have seizures. That pharmaceutical company is the next target, the weapon its own product. Through all this we watch Sarah's face: Marling has a stillness that's riveting. It's no wonder that when she meets with Clarkson's Sharon, at one point on their building's roof, we don't know where her sympathies lie.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE EAST")

PATRICIA CLARKSON: (as Sharon) We'll send you back in.

BRIT MARLING: (as Sarah) Why not just raid the house?

CLARKSON: (as Sharon) Have you been smoking too much pot with those kids?

MARLING: (as Sarah) They don't smoke pot.

CLARKSON: (as Sharon) We're not some blue collar security firm. I didn't send you out there to find the location. I have GPS for that. We spend 99 percent of our time pitching clients we never sign. I want to know what the next two jams are, avert those disasters, come out looking like a leader in the intelligence community with two new clients. After that, you can lock 'em up till middle age. What are we not talking about?

(as Sharon) Getting attached to them is all right. It's human. We know that it happens. It's the first thing we cover in training. If you spent day in and day out with a pack of white supremacists, you develop your own feeling too. But do not get soft. If they find out who you really are, they won't give a second thought to your destruction.

EDELSTEIN: It's not a subtle film. And it's rigged. The East members bathe one another in a lake. They feed one another. They play trust games. They're a family, a little loony, a lot touchy-feely, but irresistible to those of us who still have counterculture dreams. The East might use dangerous outlaw tactics but is never in the context of the movie wrong.

What, they ask, is worse: ejecting chemical waste into water that ends up giving children tumors or chucking lying CEOs into the same toxic soup and watching them sputter and flail? And what would be for someone like Sarah a judicious middle ground? What would be for us?

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. You can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org. Follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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