Directed by Zal Batmanglij
Amid a hot summer of huge blockbusters, The East emerges as an exciting piece of filmmaking from the independent scene’s hottest rising stars.
Truth, Justice and the American Way
The East was reportedly filmed on a $6.5 million budget, which is sofa change compared to the likes of the summer's biggies boasting budgets north of $200 million. What’s really cool, though, is that the movie doesn’t feel small in the slightest. It’s an intricate story (intricacy in narratives is almost taboo in the summertime) with plenty of nuance, realistic characters with credible motivations, and ideas worth mulling over after the end credits roll.
While this is regarded as an independent movie, it carries with it some big name clout. Ridley Scott and the late Tony Scott co-produced the movie. But the real star behind the camera is director and co-writer Zal Batmanglij (it must be a perquisite to be cool in order to have “Batman” in your last name). In front of the camera, the eyes belong to Brit Marling, who is also the other “co” in the writing duo. They collaborated in similar capacities on the sci-fi-tinged thriller Sound of My Voice.
This time around, activists and corporate America take center stage.
The East is the name of a group of activists who champion the little guy against the evils of large corporations that are left unaccountable for their egregious behaviors. This isn't activism in the Occupy movement sense; members of The East aren’t looking for handouts while they play with their iPads. Instead, they target tangible wrongs. And they don’t operate on theory or pure self-righteousness; they actually have some skin in the game. They have firsthand knowledge of the illicit activities by way of their own, personal victimization.
Self-righteousness and Radical Activism
The East starts like a creepy horror story railing against corporate America, maybe something along the lines of Poltergeist’s spin on the evils of realtors. In retaliation for an oil spill that destroyed a section of coastline and killed off its natural habitat, oil is pumped into the captain's house and oozes out of the vents. The imagery from the black-and-white, low-res surveillance cameras gives it the look of blood.
It’s a great way to start the movie and what follows holds the attention.
The story revolves around The East’s plans to execute three "jams," a type of hacking, of major corporations. One involves a drug that causes people to lose their minds and suffer other debilitating side effects. Unfortunately, victims can’t sue because all those nasty side effects are spelled out right on the drug’s label. Another jam involves environmental pollution caused by a mining operation. The third jam won’t be revealed here, other than to say it’s the setup for an interesting twist that leads to a solid conclusion.
It is safe to say The East’s modus operandi is very much in the eye-for-an-eye frame of mind.
Enter Sarah (Marling), who works as a type of investigator looking into The East’s activities. Before she sets off on her mission, Sarah’s employer warns her to not be soft. The flip side of that is, once Sarah has infiltrated The East’s decrepit compound, she’s challenged by the notion that perhaps she isn’t soft enough to understand everything that’s going on around her.
The people she encounters are fleshed out by a terrific cast that includes Ellen Page (Inception), Alexander Skarsgard (Disconnect), and Toby Kebbell (The Conspirator). As for Marling, she’s a formidable talent. She’s a writer/actress/producer triple threat who caught the attention of Robert Redford and stole the screen from Shia LaBeouf in The Company You Keep.
Let’s spell it out plain and simple: Brit Marling is one to watch.
Back to the characters.
Since they work and live off the grid, they’re not above dumpster diving for sustenance and while some of their activities border on the cult-like, their backgrounds justify their outlooks. While their empathy yields sympathy, their actions ultimately – and inadvertently – lead to an excellent, holistic message.
Where The East winds up is in a wholly different direction than might be expected at the outset.
• Originally published at MovieHabit.com.