REVIEW — ‘The East’: A Conspiracy for a Conspiracy Makes the Whole World Blind
There can be no greater incidental marketing boost for a specialty theatrical release like Zal Batmanglij’s The East than the global surge of righteous rage against evil food giant Monsanto and the release this weekend of the WikiLeaks documentary We Steal Secrets, which apparently portrays Julian Assange rather unfavorably at times (as I’ve parodied in another post, I think he’s hilarious).
Made for critical-thinking The New Yorker readers like me, the setup of the story is instantly fascinating: while many (not all) massively profitable manufacturing corporations are literally toxic to society, eye-for-an-eye revenge against them is morally wrong. So how will undercover private security operative Sarah (Brit Marling)—who must, by the laws of drama, come down with a severe case of Stockholm syndrome at some point and identify with the terrorists with whom she’s embedded—rectify these opposing issues?
To ratchet things up, real-life best friends and co-writers Batmanglij and Marling have cleverly made Sarah a devout Christian, a conceit that both adds to the heroine’s dilemma (but also makes things simpler for her in the end) and serves to confound target viewers like me, who are if not outright atheistic then increasingly scornful of organized religion.
This is the second collaboration between Batmanglij and Marling, the third that the latter has co-written. She basically plays the same character in different situations; at this point, Marling has established herself as a modern Moscow-theater Chekhovian in that regard. And that’s really interesting; nobody else is doing it, much less a relatively unknown actor. As I said in my review of Batmanglij’s Sound of My Voice, Marling is “an enchanting talent whom I am now beginning to suspect of sorcery given how unlikely and exceptional her brief career has been thus far.”
I stand by that statement after seeing The East.
In SOMV Marling plays a cult leader, Maggie, who may or may not be from the future, whose religious group is penetrated by a journalist and his girlfriend who hope to expose Maggie as a fraud. In The East, the role of the cult leader goes to Alexander Skarsgård as Benji, and it’s his finest performances since Melancholia. Marling’s Sarah is now doing the penetrating and exposing at the behest of a private security firm headed by the uncannily omniscient Sharon (Patricia Clarkson). After helping the anarchist commune complete a couple of successful “jams,” or sabotages of corporations by literally giving their senior managers and owners a taste of their own toxins, Sarah finds herself at a moral crossroads, torn between her employer and the group-love thing she’s sinking into with the free-loving anarchists.
Marling and Batmanglij are nothing if not completely earnest, and that fervor of conviction goes a long way to carry their films, even through slow, swampy moments that pop up now and then, particularly in this piece. According to the IMDb, way back when in 2009, when the co-writers “were penniless and lacking any prospects, they hopped trains and hung out with ‘anarchists’,” an experience that has informed many of the ideas behind The East. Indeed, it would appear that the character of makeup-wearing gay Luca, who befriends Sarah on a hopped train, is directly inspired by openly gay Batmanglij; from pictures online, he even looks somewhat like the actor who plays Luca, Shiloh Fernandez.
You’re diving right into my heart when you’re basing a narrative feature on real-life experiences.
Still, in fictionalizing that real-life experience, they have been forced into a couple of ungainly plot developments: the “jams” are too contrived, not quite convincing; and, while I think it’s certainly a nice twist, I’m not sure how convincing it is that the anarchists are rich kids who have been superbly educated at the nation’s finest schools (although I did appreciate the appearance of the boxy preppy sex addict who attended Groton with the second male lead, Doc—that was spot-on). In my personal experience of these ‘rebels’ with massive inherited wealth—Patty Hearst and Paul Getty III, both of whom I was acquainted with as a youth, immediately come to mind—they tend to merely be excessively self-destructive and not very bright. While I myself have given up some privilege and easy opportunity to pursue my passions in the arts, I find it hard to believe that these anarchists would do worse: attack the very source of their inheritance in one form or other simply out of moral outrage. However, it may be that my experience is limited; I have simply never met or heard of a character from my socio-cultural background who is a true anarchist of this ilk. Still, I will allow that such a situation is not impossible.
What Marling and her co-writers excel at is playing with your assumptions. Yes, you know that Sarah is going to develop Stockholm syndrome. Yes, you know that she’s going to be faced with a two-wrongs-don’t-make-a-right dilemma, and a third wrong—the mercenary actions of the unscrupulous firm she works for—isn’t going to help matters. It’s the way in which those issues play out against each other that is so clever and smoothly executed.
Having said that, the ending of this piece wasn’t as satisfying as either Another World or SOMV, but great endings are so difficult and the punch lines of both those films were hard acts to follow. It might also be because The East is a more commercial venture—produced by Ridley and Tony Scott, no less, and set up at Fox Searchlight—and demands might have been placed on the script that weren’t on the humbler first outings.
This film is long and lags during the second act, but it engaged me throughout. It’s middlebrow entertainment with heart, passion and a worthy subject matter that in this day and age cannot be discussed enough in entertainment. However, it didn’t engage the archetypal Hollywood blond bimbo a few seats down from me, who had regaled the entire theater before the screening with her recent partying in Vegas: “Oh my God, they drank so much! Like, the whole family did, every night, and they got into fights with each other all the time… The guys at the club just ignored me, I don’t know why, but the girls were really sweet, a lot of them coming up to me and telling me how pretty I am, which made me feel really good…” I wanted to move seats after asking her if she was for real: a fucking cliché.
And that is what I like best about Brit Marling and the different sort of work she and her friends are doing: despite a certain truthiness of characterization and plot, she’s the farthest thing imaginable from a dumb blond cliché. Yes, it would be nice to see her broaden her range, but I have all the time in the world for everything she does, whether it’s with Batmanglij or anyone else.