Hot off the success of Sound of My Voice Zal Batmanglij and his partner in crime Brit Marling take their focused engaging narrative/shooting style and apply it to The East, a throwback to the classic 70’s style thrillers. The East follows Sarah (Brit Marling), an operative for an elite private intelligence firm whose first assignment is to infiltrate this eco-terrorism cell known as “The East”. Their plan is to attack guilty parties (companies who are responsible for oil spills, selling untested pharmaceuticals, toxic dumping, etc.) and their latest string of “jams” is to give these high and mighty CEO’s a taste of their bad medicine by bringing these crimes to light. Over the course of 6 months Sarah gets close to the elusive and clandestine group and begins to win their favor. Yet all too soon her sense of right and wrong is skewed and she starts to see how wrong she might have been protecting the people The East are fighting against.
Marling, the acting virtuoso that she is, plays, all to convincingly actually, a free-spirited genius level wanderer who is happy with her new job at the intelligence firm. This company, a sort of of protective image consultant agency, doesn’t really care about anything but protecting their clients from bad publicity. Ethics and morals need not apply. They aren’t even afterthoughts but Sarah has trouble being as cold as her boss and turning off her emotions. Were this not a role written by and for Brit Marling, Sarah would be flat and uninteresting. If there’s one thing consistent about any of Marling’s performances or the films she’s in is that she’s hypnotic and magnetic. The East is so dense, well-crafted and executed it manages to make her very fine previous films Another Earth and Sound of My Voice look like community theater by comparison. Writer/director Zal Batmanglij (pronounced: bot – mang -lij) has an eye for composition but here it is intensified becoming as sharp as a noir but with a full color palette.
The East is a low level and rather understated spy film and it’s a genre that’s not explored often enough these days. It’s almost like Fight Club re-imagined by Robert Ludlum as this covert espionage thriller is a tour de force on all accounts offering mystery intrigue and simply fascinating characters at every turn. Lots of filmmakers strive to give a film a heart and weight but Marling and Batmaglij give The East a soul and the story grows on you minute by minute. It’s like a comforting and inviting quicksand (yes, we know that’s an contradiction/oxymoron) but it is so deliciously inviting you don’t mind the grittiness and all to easily get swept up in this nail-biting story. Like David Fincher, Christopher Nolan and Darren Aronofsky, Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij are the future of film.
As if Batmaglij and Marling needed any help to give their story some heft along comes Harry Gregson-Williams and Halli Cauthrey. This tag team approach to the soundtrack, an overpowering effort if you ever heard one, takes onscreen tension (which is already high) and ratchets it even higher with a Hans Zimmer level of percussion and themes. Batmanglij has a great eye for visuals and scene composition but with The East he’s outdone himself. Working with Scott Free productions (the company started by Ridley and Tony Scott – sadly this film the last one Tony produced before his death) may have lent a hand in the visual composition but this still feels like Zal and Brit’s movie. Something as simply conceived but expertly executed as Marling’s first dinner table scene with The East is so mind-blowing that if you aren’t completely sucked into the movie you should check your pulse to see if you’ve still got one.
Batmanglij and Marling handle not only a larger scale story but more numerous characters and no one seems to be getting the brush off or playing second fiddle to the Brit Marling show. The camera loves Marling and this time she shares the screen with some highly capable actors as she joins, not leads the likes of Alexander Skarsgård, Toby Kebbell, Ellen Page, and the rest of the eclectic cast. It’s a tight-knit group that shows many times how the group is dependent on everyone working as a unit, even so far to show their closeness as a, more or less, family. Again the dinner scene is mind-blowing but on a more intimate level is the bottle scene which shows an emotional core to these unfairly labeled eco-terrorists. Through the lens there’s a real tangible human element that Batmanglij nails time and again. Moreover, his films are so personal you tend to forget these are all fictional characters.
Speaking of the cast, everyone has an important part and like gears in a clock they all perform expertly and in unison. None more so than Ellen Page who, when given the chance in her moderate sized role, owns the film specifically one gut-wrenching scene where she conveys one of the most heart-stopping and tear jerking scenes in the movie. She makes you feel her pain so much so that even though it is all acting it’s so convincing you’d think it was real. It transcends the film and the story and hits at an emotional level you didn’t think was possible. It’s just one of the many unexpected scenes the film has in spades. Batmanglij and Marling exhibit something so free of trite plot devices and archetype characters that it perpetuates and champions its own originality making all other thrillers seem silly and overdone by comparison.
The story unfolds as brilliantly as it does enigmatically and is just what you’d expect from a first-rate thriller. We just don’t see this caliber of story too often, or often enough really. If there’s one gripe to be had it’s the ending, well, part of it. By now, people might expect a shocker twist or ambiguous ending; both After Earth and Sound of My Voice certainly had one. Well it’s not entirely the case here but if anything The East has a non-ending, or a “now what?” ending, likened to something that will be followed up/expanded upon in another story or episode. That might not sit well with people but in many ways it’s the right way to go because that’s more true to life anyhow as well as in keeping with the duo’s previous efforts. No tied up or happy endings here, just the next chapter in this vastly engaging and intricate story. We can only hope to see more of this story because when The East is over you won’t want it to end.
The East a gripping ride that is just dripping with coolness and has all callbacks that made 70’s thrillers so iconic and engaging (sans the bell bottoms and mustaches). So just short of this review wanting to get into every fascinating element and plot device, which would spoil the whole story, instead it will conclude having attained one of our highest recommendations to date (even if the score below isn’t a perfect 4). See this movie, see this movie, SEE THIS MOVIE!!