Review: THE EAST Entertains But Lacks An Indie Spark

Ryland Aldrich, Festivals Editor

Zal Batmanglij has worked up quite a fan base since his debut feature Sound of My Voice premiered at Sundance in 2011.

Though it was initially overshadowed by the big sale buzz of that year's other Brit Marling film, Another Earth, a small but vocal crowd vigorously (and justly) beat the drum that Sound of My Voice was the better of the two. While Fox Searchlight scooped up Another Earth at that Sundance, they originally passed on Sound of My Voice, only to circle around and pick it up after the film's positive response at SXSW. Not long after, it was announced that Fox Searchlight would also be producing the next Batmanglij and Marling project, a story not that dissimilar to Sound of My Voice called The East. Two years on from Batmanglij's feature debut, and the man is back with his muse Marling in tow.

Where Sound of My Voice dealt with a pair of amateur filmmakers infiltrating a cult, The East takes this basic concept and magnifies it for a studio-produced picture. Batmanglij replaces the filmmakers with Marling's Sarah, a former FBI agent turned corporate security and espionage consultant who is tasked with infiltrating a group of eco-terrorists that call themselves The East. The group have been staging progressively more hostile actions. It's Sarah's job to gather intel on The East and potentially prevent the damage of shareholder assets if one of her company's clients is involved.

Once Sarah rather fortuitously finds herself inside The East's "freegan" lifestyle headquarters, she meets the particularly charismatic leader Benji, played without particular charisma by Alexander Skarsgård. At Benji's side she also finds Izzy (Ellen Page). It's unclear if Izzy's antagonism towards Sarah is motivated by her protective instincts for The East or her romantic connection to Benji. One thing is abundantly clear, Sarah is going to have to earn her trust if she's to be included in the planning of any future anti-corporate actions.

Most of this and the actions that follow play out in relatively unimaginative ways. Plot conveniences are taken and characters easily evolve as the script demands. None of it is particularly bad for a studio action-thriller, but it certainly lacks the imagination and efficient execution that Sound of My Voice delivered. By contrast, this feels overdeveloped.

Take one particular scene where The East suddenly need to know if their plan to poison drug company executives with their own dangerous drugs has worked. The gang lives in a burnt down building in the middle of the forest. They light candles and pee in the woods. Yet when it becomes convenient, surprise, there is a whole high tech lair down in the basement with multiple computer systems and satellite TV. These kind of shortcuts pop up time and time again, as if just to remind you that you're watching a studio movie.

There's no doubt that talented filmmakers like Batmanglij and Marling have a bright future in Hollywood. Their world is rich, characters interesting, and writing/acting/directing skills show plenty of promise. Unfortunately, The East just seems to suffer from some growing pains. There are some cool ideas here and it's pretty damned entertaining for a studio action-thriller; however, it's definitely no Sound of My Voice.


Review originally published during the Sundance Film Festival in January 2013. The East opens in select theaters in the U.S. on Friday, May 31. Visit the official site for more information.

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  • Sean Smithson

    Okay, I just watched THE EAST, and personally it's so far probably my favorite film of the year. To focus on one comment in your review Ryland, the group are living in a burnt down house and peeing in the woods as a kind of statement to themselves, but aren't anti-technology. They need it to serve them. having grown up in the early 70's with a lot of "uncles and aunts" who were from money and suffered white guilt, and wouldn't bathe (and in one case of one fellow, even wipe after taking a shit) they were all film students armed with the latest tools to pursue their craft. So as far as in The East, I feel this is spot on, and not in-congruent at all, but actually pretty insightful. .
    As far as "acking an indie spark" I'm not even sure how to take that. What is an "indie spark"? I'm not being confrontational (we're friends anyhoo) but I don't get it. Personally I think indy film making is a myth, and if someone sets out to get that indy vibe i usually end up calling bullshit. It's akin to some lo-fi black metal band sounding like shit on purpose. Nothing wrong with being slick as long as the product doesn't sduffer. This being a more studio-feeling picture (to play in the terminology sandbox for a second) is actually a good thing in my opinion too, because this film delivers a potent message with a spoonful of sugar. Brit is beautiful...but very talented. the script can be obvious at times...but it remains logical and still true imo. And i liked Alexander as Benji, and find it a little contradictory in the review saying he isn't charismatic while kind of leveling an opinion that the film is kind of glossy and Hollywood and not indy enough. i don't need benji to be a charismatic character, I need to believe who hhe is. And I did.
    To paraphrase brit in an interview I watched about this film, she mentioned Pakula and films like ALL THE PRESIDENTS MEN (slick, and featuring two movie stars) and THE PARALAX VIEW (featuring talented pretty boy Warren beatty) and I think that was right on the money.

    I don't care if a film is indy if it satisfies me. THE EAST absolutely satisfied me, and again, will be on my top of the year list come late December.

    Also, I too loved THE SOUND OF MY VOICE, even with it's obvious twist ending. It made sense and was a logical conclusion to the film as a piece of entertainment.

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