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The East Review: The Cult of Personality

By Seth Freilich | Film | May 31, 2013 |

By Seth Freilich | Film | May 31, 2013 |

“We are the East, and this is just the beginning.”

A few years ago, Brit Marling became the darling of Sundance (and of a few of us here around the Pajiba) because of a pair of movies she starred in and co-wrote. While Another Earth was very good, it was the fantastic Sound of My Voice that really caught everyone’s attention. Textured and tense, Sound of My Voice used a small-scale story about a cult to go to some interesting places and to present a great mystery, as SLW beautifully described in his review:

Mystery is not just a genre, not just a descriptor of that which is unknown. It’s a holy word that maps onto knowledge the Nietzschian notion of the abyss that stares back. Mystery is ignorance filled with terrible knowledge. Mystery is knowing that we do not know. And so one of the tricks of great fiction, which is borrowed from philosophy and religion, is the art of being wise enough to know nothing. By the end of a great story, we do not simply know more, we know that we know less. Mystery is not revealed when held up to the light, it is deepened.

The East is Marling and director/co-writer Zal Batmanglij’s follow-up to Sound of My Voice and they return to slightly similar territory insofar as “The East” is also a cult. Unlike the peaceful and quiet Sound cult, however, The East is a cult with an angry purpose, a group of underground eco-terrorists who commit “jams” against the individuals behind their corporate enemies, dousing an oil spill CEO’s house with oil, for example. Sarah Moss (Marling) is a former FBI agent now working at a private intelligence firm that works for exactly the type of corporations being targeted by The East. And so Sarah is tasked with going undercover and trying to infiltrate The East. It’s hardly a spoiler to say that she succeeds in this early task, which is where she meets its mysteriously leader Benji (Alexander Skarsgård) and his right-hand lady Izzy (Ellen Page). Here is where the movie digs in, acting equal parts character study and good ol’ action thriller.

As a thriller, the film entertains, but is a slightly-disappointingly straightforward story of an agent embedding in an enemy and trying to take them down and prevent tragedy while struggling with the fact that she likes the individuals and maybe even agrees with their overall ideology. The plot here is intriguing enough, yet there is something cold and detached about it, which fails to rope the viewer in to the same extent that a perfect thriller does. But the film succeeds because Marling and Batmanglij elevate the film above a rote by-the-numbers exercise, making it a real character study and digging in to Sarah’s burgeoning relationship with the members of The East. Your typical thriller of this ilk gives you maybe one scene of true character bonding to show the sympathies being developed by the secret agent, whereas The East spends the better part of the film on this. In this way, it is very much a companion piece to Sound of My Voice, which danced around the edges of what the cult was all about, as it was much more interested in its main characters’ belief system and how their beliefs were challenged by what the Sound cult believed.

As Marling describes it:

We wanted to tell a story about all the intense political and moral ideas behind it, how complicated it all is. But we wanted to put in a really fun, entertaining espionage thriller where that stuff is happening in the background.

The film eschews the simple black-and-white approach of “corporations bad, environmentalists good,” instead focusing on a female character who isn’t “the girlfriend or the wife or the sister or the sex object” but who is “strong and acting with a lot of agency.” Sarah is trying to do what’s right while facing down a challenge as to what it really is she believes is “right.” While the film is loaded with good performances, including the always welcome Patricia Clarkson, it succeeds primarily because of the lead trio of Marling, Skarsgård and Page, who each offer deceptively rich performances that invest the viewer in the character angle of the story, despite the possible lack of investment on the thriller side. As the film progresses through some small plot twists and moral turns, each of these characters find their individual beliefs challenged, and it’s how they react and respond to these challenges that keep the film afloat. The East may not be as rich or interesting as Sound of My Voice, but it manages to toe the line of having a more mainstream, broad appeal while still digging into the meaty questions of morals, presumptions and beliefs that Marling and Batmanglij seem interested in exploring. And if that broader appeal gets more asses in the seats to see watch the stories that Marling and Batmanglij want to tell, that can only be a good thing.

And speaking of asses — yes, ladies, the film also gives Skarsgård ass.

The East premiered at Sundance 2013 and screened at South By Southwest 2013.

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Seth is a Senior Editor and sometime critic. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.