Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij stepped onto the indie scene in a prominent way with Sound of My Voice. The collaborators made a surprising movie that truly engaged in a conversation with its audience, asking plenty of questions and giving you the proper amount of clues to form your own answers. Their followup film, The East, isn’t so much about questions, but it’s a shame the movie lays everything on so thick and in such obvious ways, leaving little room for any moral ambiguity. At the end of the day, this is a movie where the good guys are the good guys and the bad guys are kind of the bad guys.
One of those characters, who fluctuates between both camps in contrived ways, is Sarah (Brit Marling). She works for a private intelligence firm made for evil corporations and such, has a boyfriend, and a nice life. Sarah, being the up and coming hotshot agent she is, like any other spy protagonist, is assigned to infiltrate an eco-terrorist cell known as “The East.” Assigned by her boss, Sharon (Patricia Clarkson) — who even gets to spew out exposition on a rooftop with that cliche helicopter lingering in the background — she has complete faith in her spy. It’s an obvious B-movie set up, and for the first half, it moves exceptionally well in that regard.
After a decent amount of traveling and searching, Sarah finally comes upon The East, a group led by a heavily bearded Benji (Alexander Skarsgård). The mysterious group leader, who we meet in somewhat of a comical way, is committed and passionate, and the same applies to his followers, including the likes of Ellen Page and Toby Kebbell. Their house and personalities are rundown on the surface, but they’re dangerous, and seeing that danger play out is the main thrill of The East.
There’s a scene where the group crashes a smug corporate party, and it’s lean and efficient. Batmangli thrives as a filmmaker in these scenes. The co-writer/directors knows how to pace, block, and craft a suspenseful moment. Not only that, Batmangli and Marling craft their suspense in effectively dramatic ways. The two writers layout the stakes in a personal way, not just in terms of, “How many people are going to die because of this?” A fine example is the character Doc (Toby Kebbell), arguably the heart and soul of the movie. We learn his backstory in an honest way, making that party sequence carry an emotional weight. It’s moments like the ones we see from Kebbell that makes the rest of The East come off even more saggy in comparison.
As a thriller, the movie begins with a taught pace but then begins to lose that discipline as the film dwindles along. There’s a subplot with Page’s character, Izzy, that feels expected and so obvious, lacking the nuance of Doc’s background. Once it enters the picture, the drama isn’t there. However, that’s not the biggest problem with The East, as that comes from another subplot with Sarah’s boyfriend, Tim (Jason Ritter). It’s a gigantic lull, draining momentum from the film. The problem is that the character ends up as more of a device than a genuine character. Through him we see Sarah’s change loud and clear, with him reacting to everything the audience is seeing: her sleeping on the floor, acting distant, etc.. Marling has the chops to convey Sarah’s transformation without another character having to comment on it.
Overall, The East lacks the restraint of Sound of My Voice. The post-credits sequence confirms that, leaving the film on the most morally clean and cliche note possible. Despite their underwhelming second feature, Batmanglij and Marling remain a pair worth keeping an eye on. Even with all of The East‘s faults, it’s clear that Sound of My Voice was no fluke. Let’s hope their next collaboration just has a leaner script.
The Upside: Marling can carry a movie not only on her shoulders, but also her feet; Toby Kebbell impresses, per usual; a series of standout scenes filled with all around good performances
The Downside: 20 minutes overlong; a boyfriend subplot which doesn’t fit; the very, very end
On the Side: Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij wrote this before Sound of My Voice.