The East (2013): Cult Espionage

Language : English | Running Time : 116 Minutes | Director : Zal Batmanglij

One of the biggest paradoxes we face in life is –  when it comes to doing the right thing do we break the law or do we believe that the law is right and no matter what the case, the law should always prevail. This is a paradox that separates the idealists from the realists. Jane/Sarah (Brit Marling) faces such a paradox in The East.

Jane/Sarah works for a private investigative agency which looks like it is run on the same scale as the FBI albeit with lesser people on board and the agents working undercover. The agency run by Sharon(Patricia Clarkson) has a clientèle that boasts some of the corporate world’s biggest players and it gives them cover against external threats that might lead from any espionage resulting in leak of the company’s policies. Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling try to write an interesting thriller based corporate espionage. Sarah is assigned to monitor an anarchist cult called The East, headed by William/Benji(Alexander Skarsgard), who are termed as eco-terrorists. The group is an eclectic group that somehow fits the template of all groups we’ve come across in movies. There’s the doctor, Doc(Toby Kebbell) the hacker Tess (Danielle Macdonald), the utility guy Luca(Shiloh Fernandez), the intelligent female companion, Izzy(Ellen Page). They have the group right with other members floating in and out. The group is motivated and there’s very little they won’t do. An eye for an eye is a motto they take seriously and one of their “jams” shows it.

The East considers the cult from close quarters. It gives us a view of how things look inside and show that not every cult has weird sex habits and is sexual in nature. The East brings about the culture of sharing within a cult, of one member depending on the other to survive, cleanse both body and soul and in a way further the movement by giving yourself for the movement, both body and soul. This we can understand from the modified version of truth and dare that they play, the dinner exercise that they initially make Jane/Sarah pursue when they first encounter her and also the custom of bathing each other. Allowing someone to see you stark naked and touching you places takes a lot of openness and trust and The East tells us that being part of a cult makes for such openness and trust.

I did like the way the cult was being shown. It is interesting when it isn’t the same old kinky,sexual practices being shown as a way of the occult. I did keep wondering how much of a difference it would have been had there been more to the detective procedural along with the infusion into the cult. When you watch the movie, the only thing that’ll probably frustrate you is the way the pharmaceutical companies are judged. It is rather too much for me to take that a drug that’s been doing the rounds for years and is reportedly making billions of dollars for a company will ruthlessly decimate the person who consumes the drug. If it really is as serious as it is portrayed, wouldn’t there have been more cases reported and wouldn’t the drug have been under scrutiny? It is an interesting plot point to pick on but it would have been great had they considered and formulated it better.

Espionage is street – smart thinking as a bundle of coincidences bounce at your feet. Sarah acts smart,quick and resourceful. Even during times when the movie tries to bring in fear that she will be caught in the act, we aren’t really afraid of the possible consequence. There’s a confidence that nothing will happen to her. Brit Marling plays Sarah with a lot of conviction. As the leader of the cult, Alexander Skarsgard has done a good enough job but in the hands of someone like John Hawkes, the character would have been more excitingly played. It isn’t a slight to his work but when the script doesn’t really have anything telling about the character except that he is the leader, well-groomed, intelligent and a history that doesn’t really justify motive, it needs some more flair from the actor’s part. The actors are good overall but it isn’t the leads who get all the glory here. Ellen Page is in possibly her best role since the days of Juno. She is brilliant as Izzy.  In a scene where she finds her father jumping into the arsenic river, she let’s loose her emotions and the effect that it has on us is one of the reasons this movie works. Even though there is no real emotional attachment with the characters, Ellen Page’s shaken, broken down look gives us a moment of pure cinematic pleasure. As the intelligent woman, she is sceptical when it comes to including Sarah and there’s a cold war at the beginning. Her expressionless stare with open and questioning eyes make for a great image. When she sees what Sarah has to go through at the dinner table, you sense a flash of pity overcome her. It is moments like these that make Page’s performance worth lingering over.

People come and go like one does in an inn. You don’t actually know how many are part of the whole thing or what they do when they are not part of the cult. The people are an insignificant part of a movie which is largely about fighting for the people, society. The East is not a see – through into a cult in that way. It is neither too smart with its espionage. With the Doc we sense his motive for being a part of the cult but with the rest of them, the motives are never given real importance. This might be a small fallacy that could be ignored for the entertainment that The East provides but it could have been a lot more than it turned out to be.  Somewhere, The East has found the trick to mask all this adequacy as we watch the film. It has everything in adequate measure, the good and the faults that it seemingly balances itself in a way that we are most likely to end up liking the film and finding it even intelligent.

This is the third film Brit Marling has co-written. Her previous venture, Another Earth is a well written film, much better than what the end product is here.  Zal Batmanglij – Brit Marling and company have tried to demystify the cult and have attempted some interesting plot points. The East is naive in the content that it tries to portray but intelligent in the way it masks that naivety. The East is lacking in the “what” department of filmmaking but it more than makes up for it in the department of “how”. The East is an interesting watch that over-stays its welcome in our head after the movie ends.


2 thoughts on “The East (2013): Cult Espionage

  1. The East is definitely one of the better films to be viewed this year and hope people will give it a chance after reading your post atleast…Good going mate…

  2. A passable thriller,nothing more nothing less.As you correctly mentioned in your review “The East is naive in the content that it tries to portray but intelligent in the way it masks that naivety. “

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