Posted in: Review

The East

When your debut film is 2011’s masterful sci-fi mystery Sound of My Voice, it’s hard for people not to have outsized expectations of what you’re going to come up with next. When your second film deals with many of the same issues (cults, mysterious undergrounds, how people drift into fanaticism), those expectations run even higher. It’s more frustrating, then, that what results is the perfectly competent but still somewhat generic undercover thriller like The East, a sophomore slump for director/co-writer Zal Batmanglij that from any other filmmaker would have been perfectly acceptable. Talent can be a burden.

Batmanglij’s co-writer Brit Marling (who also co-wrote and starred in Sound and is similarly afflicted with burdensome talent) plays Jane, a former FBI agent hired by a private intelligence firm as an investigator. Her first assignment is to infiltrate The East, an underground environmental activist cell that’s been targeting corporate executives they accuse of spreading pollution and disease. Jane dyes her hair blonde, gets tossed a pair of Birkenstocks by her new boss Sharon (an even flintier than usual Patricia Clarkson), and heads out to gather intelligence on The East for the firm’s corporate clients. A few nights of eating out of dumpsters and hopping freight trains later, she’s face to face with The East. They turn out to be little like the expected ranting radicals. The spark plug of an agitator, Izzy (Ellen Page), is the closest person there to a stereotypical bomb-thrower, while the Manson-eyed Benji (Alexander Skarsgard) is a serene, lead-from-behind type with a potently prophetic edge to him.

The ease with which Jane is seduced by The East would be infuriating in most films of this kind. But here, it’s done very purposefully. Batmanglij and Marling have created a character searching for meaning, but who hasn’t found it in the corporate/government world she’s been skillfully drifting through. Jane is barely able to pay attention to her boyfriend (Jason Ritter) and is work-focused to the point of obsession. A quiet Christian, she seems more intrigued by the collective spirit of these burning-eyed activists living in their grand, falling-down mansion and dreaming up their agitprop schemes. That those schemes come less from strictly political motivations than from a desire to exorcise the guilt of the privileged with Biblical vengeance on those who would transgress their beliefs. (Several members of the cell appear to come from wealthy backgrounds, and at least one seems to be conflating their ideological targets with personal animus towards their family.)

After Jane accompanies The East (whose name is never explained) on their first mission, she loses her tentativeness. Unfortunately, the film’s momentum drains away as Jane shifts back and forth from life at the collective to reporting back in on things to Sharon, who comes off as singularly unimpressed by anything Jane is discovering. Unlike in Sound, Batmanglij doesn’t dig into the psychosexual mechanics of cults and groupthink. There is little attempt as well to detail the power dynamics at work in these kind of small, tightly-knit ideological faux-families, as recent films from United Red Army to Something in the Air and The Baader Meinhof Complex have. There is also surprisingly little discussion amongst the group about the causes they are willing to risk so much for. Instead, the story focuses more on building a tension between Benji and Jane, each actor’s unflappable serenity seeming to complement the other’s in a way that seems destined to lead to them either falling in love or killing the other.

As a thriller about the dirty deeds that many corporations hide behind, The East is a fairly rote piece of work. The presence of Ridley Scott and the late Tony Scott as producers could account for some of the smoothing over of Batmanglij’s more idiosyncratic edges. But there is still much to chew over here, particularly in the film’s evocation of its characters’ bone-deep desire for some kind of collective ideology and purpose. Given the cold blank slate of Jane’s professional and personal lives, it’s no surprise that she would gravitate towards these passionate activists, even as their frustrations with injustice bend them towards terrorism. They have what she needs: a reason.

Comments (2) on "The East"

  1. The reality is:
    1. There is an antibiotic causing the exact symptoms portrayed in the film, they are called Fluoroquinolones.
    2. If you listen to the news caster in the movie you will hear the name Fluoroquinolones, and how it was used during the Gulf War to vaccinate our troops against Anthrax – the “Gulf War Syndrome” the soldiers suffer from is actually the adverse reactions to the Fluoroquinolone vaccination used, Cipro.
    3. Bayer, along with Johnson & Johnson, and the FDA, are all fully aware of how thousands of people have been stricken by the serious adverse reactions to Fluoroquinolones. The three most common prescribed are Avelox, Cipro, and Levaquin – but even with the profits in the billions from the sale of these medications, not one dime has been spent by any of them to research why is it happening, how to reverse, or repair the damage it has caused to the thousands of patients who trusted that the medication they were taking was safe.
    It’s obvious to those who suffer from Fluoroquinolone Toxicity Syndrome that the makers of this film did their research prior to making the film, and were spot on in their portrayal of the symptoms of the adverse effects of this antibiotic. This is a classic “Truth is stranger than Fiction” when it come to Fluoroquinolones. The pharmaceutical companies want the world to believe these reactions are rare, when they are not. It has been estimated that 1 out of 10 people will have some type of reaction to these antibiotics ranging from mild to severe. The pharmaceutical companies are willing to let the “few” suffer for the “greater good.” Most people know and understand the risk of tendon damage and rupture from Fluoroquinolones, because the pharmaceutical companies were forced to place a warning on the antibiotics – FORCED being the operative word here. They are NOT going to acknowledge any other reaction they are not forced to do. The scariest part of the whole movie – what does it tell you when Hollywood “gets it” before the FDA does?

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