Movie Review: “The East”

Ellen Page and Alexander Skarsgard in The East

“The East” — a film review by Gary Chew

The inward sign of maturity, or at least moving further forward into geezerhood, is seeing a movie in which one spots the nuanced immaturity in the work of young filmmakers — yet catch the promise of what might come for and from them as they hopefully reap more from their talent, industry and vision. “The East” is one those: a little focus-groupy here and there, but freighting a message that well outweighs an unmanned drone aircraft on the prowl.

Brit Marling in Fox Searchlight's "The East"
Brit Marling in Fox Searchlight’s “The East.”

After the screening I went to, I could have sworn everyone else who’d just seen “The East” was, like me, still internally processing parts of Zal Batmanglij‘s new movie. He and Brit Marling, the film’s female lead, wrote the script.

It’s neat to see cross-gender collaboration the likes of this movie, and the recent “Frances Ha,” which takes benefit from keen writing by Greta Gerwig and her film’s director, Noah Baumbach. “The East” is no heartwarming New York City street-smart comedy of substance. It doesn’t appeal to the passions of right and wrong as much; nor the ruthlessness that obtains from the concrete-solid convictions held by the young adults being played in “The East.”

Marling is a spook for an espionage firm in the business of spying for corporate clients. She targets ecco-terrorists, whom the story has as having it “up to here” with the poisoning of human beings, the air beings breathe and the land on which they live. Her name is Sarah.

She’s a devout Christian; serious-minded. Neither undereducated nor a low-info woman: whip-like in her thinking and arrogance. Sarah takes the corporation’s side of the environment equation. There are similarities between the character Marling plays and two other newly-come superwomen doing film roles with names such as Katniss and Lisbeth — whoa.

Two of the eco-terrorists are Benji (Alexander Skarsgard) and Izzy (Ellen Page). Sarah infiltrates their small hardscrabble band of retribution experts after excitement enough that proves her viability and integrity for pulling “jams.” They are the damaging events the radicals plan and execute by surprise on unsuspecting megacorporation staff and property. (Now we know why business has taken to spying on those other than just market competitors.)

Brit Marling and Alexander Skarsgard, The East
Alexander Skarsgard and Brit Marling.

In part, the velocity of “The East” may be to blame for its sudden transitions. They whisk so quickly from the activists’ funky, rural venue to where the group almost magically appears — dressed to the nines — easily navigating the pure swank and soiree of corporate doublethink. You’d think these radicals were all high-rising executive wannabes who’d never be caught dead dumpster diving for trashed fast food as they were in an earlier scene. Yes, hardscrabble and dedicated yet, in yuppy land, so with it.

A smidgen more in the exposition about this stark difference in the worlds the depicted eco-terrorists would have been welcome. What was meant to surprise merely confused.

Benji and Izzy are, as finally mentioned well into the second act, children of wealth. Conveniently, the hideout is an old, isolated property of Benji’s family. Benji and Izzy are sick of their previous lives of privilege and comfort, and besides, Izzy father is an unrepentant executive jerk who needs to poison rivers and streams to make a satisfying profit. Her get-even scene with Dad and Mom goes a little overboard, but as Izzy would have it, “swimmingly,” though in murky waters. Oh, the vengeful adult child on the loose.

Benji’s history is not quite as stark, but he’s as resolute for righting environmental wrongs as Izzy is. He’s the latent male leader, although most of the women in this cadre of rads could kick his butt.

Why so little of Sarah’s history is given perplexed me. It could be that her family background may not be as generally acceptable since she’s working against “The East.” Her relationship with her significant other, when not on assignment, seems out of tune with what Sarah appears to be; perhaps a suggestion that she is, although a young woman of Christian beliefs, sexually active with her guy when not out on what could be called the farm, spying on others her own age. Her attraction to and trysting with Skarsgard’s Benji, after the pair become acquainted, find more comfort in the believability zone. The script may be avoiding writing Sarah’s parents into something offensive for a good portion of film goers.

Julia Ormond, The East
Julia Ormond.

Then again, it could be a ploy to attract young audiences that are more than on just one side of this modern contemporary issue. Something to think about.

The film has heft. It makes one wonder what could come from turning our collective back on circumstances that endanger the habitability of future Earth … and people then trying to exist on it.

It takes three good leading actors to bring off these intense emotions, keeping their characters’ acts together, not getting hung up on another member … and, for heaven’s sake, not changing one’s mind about the whole thing.

Marling, Skarsgard and Page deliver, especially the women, including the solid, much-appreciated talents of Patricia Clarkson as Sarah’s oh-so-clever executive spy boss. These women convince as badass females. I wonder if, before shooting “The East,” the gals reviewed any old movies of Stanwyck, Crawford, Davis and Hepburn to see how it’s done. That list of “ladies” names four who also really knew how to … back when.

Can you imagine Brit Marling, Greta Gerwig, Jennifer Lawrence and Rooney Mara becoming film directors, then refining — in the future — their current characters’ messages? I can. And won’t it be fun!

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