The nefarious corporations in the politically charged cult thriller The East are named McCabe-Grey, Hawkstone, and Hiller Brood, respectively. These monikers, laden with symbolism, are heavy-handed and so overtly dubious they give off an almost James Bond villain appeal. With such unambiguously diabolical enemies, there is a sense that The East might be a winking action thriller. But it's not. It's a character-driven thinker. The East doesn't wink at these names. The East takes itself seriously.
This earnestness ultimately suits The East, because it highlights its strengths. But in order to get to the virtues of the film—the subtle characterizations, the commentary on the power of communal living, and the portrait of culture shock—the film's overly obvious plot and impassioned themes must be partially ignored. This is a difficult requirement, but it's ultimately worth it.
Zal Batmanglij's second film, co-written with star Brit Marling, follows a dedicated spy, who is reporting on a violent anarchist collective called the East, which is set on destroying evil corporations. In The East, the evil corporations are Very Evil. Search the film and you will find no ambiguity regarding their depravity. Hawkstone is poisoning a lovely watershed with straight-up arsenic. The Very Evil Corporation's actions are directly responsible for terrible outcomes—like disabling a talented doctor doing aid work in Africa or killing a four-year-old boy, who is adorably named Johnny Perkins. To punish the evil billionaires for their villainous ways, the cultist eco-terrorism group the East rises to enact metaphor-laden revenge on these deserving conglomerates.
Batmanglij and Marling's breakout collaboration, 2011's special and weird thriller Sound of My Voice, balanced similar themes regarding the power of cults, the intricacies of communal living, and the consequences of persuasion. But as Sound of My Voice dealt with elements of time travel and remained intriguingly ambiguous with its plot, its themes were allowed to elliptically float around, rather than begging to be compared to current events. As it is, the zealous and cerebral qualities of The East comes across as immature. This is unfortunate because now that the apparent flaws are addressed and out of the way, what remains of the film is remarkable.
Most strikingly, The East's portrait of the eponymous cult is fantastic. The East is a fictional, anarchist, ecological terrorist group, based in the politics of freeganism. They live off the unnecessary waste of a fatted culture. There is dumpster diving, dilapidated mansion squatting, river bathing, banjo playing, and unusual eating rituals involving wooden spoons and straightjackets. Many of these details are based in reality; Marling and Batmanglij lived with alternative communities for some time before writing the script, and have spoken about their fascination with their principles and minutia of their day-to-day habits. The cult in The East is gorgeously offset with incredible production details. Shot in Louisiana, the production designer behind Beasts of the Souther Wild, Alex DiGerlando, masterfully created another portrait of ramshackle, organic living outside of society. It's a world that prizes the autonomy of living outside of society, as well as the vulnerability needed to give oneself completely over to a community. In addition to a detail-rich setting, The East manages to subtly paint a convincing portrait of this uncomfortable liberation.
These themes are put into relief by gorgeously understated acting all around, with an observational, instinctively-written script that plays to the actors' strengths. Marling's Sarah Moss is young spy immersed in a world in order to remain outside of it and ultimately destroy it. In shades of Zero Dark Thirty, she is a woman obsessed, filled with internal struggles and outward strength. Sarah's boss, the head of Hiller Brood, is played with compellingly icy competence by Patricia Clarkson. Ellen Page brings her signature stocky, defiant gait to her portrayl of a stalwart member of the East, her rebellious attitude contrasting Alexander Skarsgard's powerfully reticent cult leader. The stand out is Tony Kebbel, who plays a young, disabled doctor with guarded anguish.
What's more, while The East is smart and character-driven, it's also an exciting thriller, well-paced and entrancing—perhaps the influence of producer Ridley Scott. It's a film worth putting the politics aside for, in order to pay attention to amazing characterizations of a cult, the gentle acting, strong dialoge, and intellectual themes—all surprisingly and stubbornly subtle in the face of this unsubtle plot.
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