Published Jun 06, 2013Certain to be as overpraised in core urban North American locales as it will be ridiculed and mocked everywhere else, Zal Batmanglij's assured and timely thriller, The East, very much fits and represents the undergraduate ethos of our time.
It's as impractical and manipulative as it is well-directed and intense, which leaves it open to equal parts criticism and championing, most of which will likely boil down to any given viewer's placement on the political spectrum and level of maturity.
As is the standard, the topic is corporate greed and speculative ways to handle it in a modern context. Sarah (Brit Marling), a surprisingly sheltered operative for a vaguely defined private intelligence firm, is tasked with infiltrating a generic, politically motivated anarchist group called "the East," which is ostensibly a more tactile and aggressive variation on Anonymous, all the way down to encoded YouTube videos bragging about their ironic social disruptions.
Smartly, Batmanglij posits his antihero gang as a humourless cult. Ersatz leader Benji (Alexander Skarsgård) proves to be the most impenetrable and magnetic for Sarah, subtly manipulating his minions into a collective ideology while giving them the impression of autonomy. His methodology for tackling their targets — initially a pharmaceuticals CEO and eventually a polluting industrialist — is clever, giving each member of his group an individual task, adding a personal touch while giving them a sense of individual belonging.
How conveniently Sarah manages to infiltrate and assimilate to the group is as contrived and silly (although efforts are made to explain this ease later in the film) as her rapidly evolving relationship with her one-note sociopath boss, Sharon (Patricia Clarkson), who doesn't even try to mask prioritizing dollar value over human life. Similarly, her wonder at the commune ethos of her smelly and unkempt new buddies is confusing, seeing as anyone with any sort of exposure to pop culture or even a liberal arts elective course while obtaining their degree wouldn't find dumpster-diving idealists particularly refreshing or revolutionary.
And just as the very unlikely constructed ironies of their tasks are way too handy to take seriously, Batmanglij's assurance behind the camera, making virtually every scene tense and magnetic, sells the cheesy fantasy of it all with an astounding sense of urgency. Sarah's masked unease is palpable throughout, giving us the unnerving sense that she'll either be caught by her gang of uber-liberal cohorts or thrown under the bus by her melodramatically greedy, Republican boss.
What works best about this bit of consumerist subterfuge is ultimately its level of maturity and intelligence in acknowledging that greed and callousness may not be specific to people in positions of power. Marling and Batmanglij (who co-wrote the film together) are conscious of inherent human flaws and much of the cliché involved in an outing of this nature, even making one of the most vocal members of their little group — Izzy (Ellen Page) — the ultimate stereotype for affluent, youthful rage.
The pointed remarks about a wasteful culture "throwing out perfectly good food," which sustains the anarchist group, along with a smug remark about Astroturf, in relation to pro-lifers, make it clear just where they stand on things. But there is evidence that they appreciate the inherent problems intrinsic in tearing down a society without a clear understanding of an effective way to rebuild it. (Fox)