This is why you guys need a TV.


Theatrical Release Date: 05/31/2013
Director: Zal Batmanglij
Cast: Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgård, Ellen Page, Toby Kebbell, Shiloh Fernandez, Danielle Macdonald, Hillary Baack, Patricia Clarkson, Jason Ritter
Rated: PG-13 for thematic elements, violence, some disturbing images, sexual content and partial nudity.
Runtime: 1 hour, 56 minutes


Trailer:

That water looks good enough not to swim in.

You may have noticed there aren’t a lot of interviews on this site. Part of that is scheduling (it’s actually quite difficult to make significant money reviewing films) and part of that is philosophy. I’m not one who cares to rub elbows with famous people just because they’re famous and I’ve always been more concerned about the end product; caring about the story and how well it was executed more than whether or not there were a lot of practical jokes played on-set.

Coming to a point, I refer to my interview with Brit Marling and Mike Cahill for their work on Another Earth. That was a film that came out of nowhere and grabbed my attention, presenting not only a fascinating story but also the hope of new and original voices in a cinematic landscape increasingly dominated by mainstream fare for the lowest common denominator. Speaking with Marling and Cahill was invigorating and I came away with the sense that these were two filmmakers who would be providing something fresh in the years to come.

The year after that, Sound of my Voice was released and is one of the few standout films of 2012, something that was not only thought provoking but original. Scheduling got in the way of a follow-up interview with Brit and that film’s director/co-writer Zal Batmanglij. Now there’s a third film co-written by Marling, this one also with Batmanglij as director/co-writer, The East. Scheduling once again keeps me from speaking with the filmmakers but in this case, part of me is relieved.

While I know that any conversation with Marling will be fascinating and would enjoy a chance to talk with Batmanglij, their latest project is harder to champion. Having resorted to Internet research (and I recommend this interview from Collider if you’re interested), I can see that there is still that same passion for the story evident in the previous two works by Marling and her Georgetown cohorts. However, perhaps because of having Ridley and Tony Scott onboard as producers and perhaps because of having an actual budget to work with, The East starts out as something interesting and provocative but devolves into just another thriller; one you’d likely see from Tony more than Ridley.

There are a million different directions and character studies that are possible with the universe created by Marling and Batmanglij. The main thrust of the story follows Sarah, an ex-FBI agent working undercover for a private security firm run by Patricia Clarkson. Sarah is sent to learn about an eco-terrorism group know as The East and soon discovers she may not be on the right side of things. Throughout though, there are angles half-explored and characters almost completely forgotten, which leaves an unsatisfying taste in the mouth once all is said and done. Then there’s the issues with the last 30 minutes or so, which take this at times very compelling look at a woman struggling with the murky ethics of her situation, and turns it into your run-of-the-mill thriller; complete with a end credits sequence which acts as both a bit of resolution and evokes Enemy of the State so concretely I wonder if people responsible for that film get any royalties.

On the plus side, the performances are pretty good all-around. Marling once again provides a compelling protagonist; made even more impressive because she doesn’t do a lot to change her vocal cadence between different roles. Despite carrying herself often with the same demeanor, she conveys so much in just her eyes and by choosing to pause or break up her dialogue in certain ways. Alexander Skarsgård and Ellen Page play two of the key members of The East and apart from a scene or two where Page’s delivery feels a little too preachy, the pair provide a nice counterbalance and almost a push/pull for Marling’s character as she gets to know the group.

There were two more performances to single out, and both of them are good, but suffer from the direction in which the story goes. First, there’s Patricia Clarkson, playing a no-nonsense CEO who’s ethics are defined by the bottom line to her company. There are some really good scenes between her and Marling but instead of creating a real flashpoint for the finale, the almost caper-like ending denies this possibility. And then there’s Jason Ritter, who gets the thankless role of being the man who doesn’t know his girlfriend is doing any of this whatsoever. Although his character gets a bit more information as the movie progresses, he’s always just this lump of flesh for Sarah to come home to. There’s so much to process inside the eco-terrorist cell that the space to explore this relationship simply doesn’t exist; so much so that it’s questionable if it should at all.

I really, really, really hate being so negative about this film and I come back to that whole interviewing philosophy. Had I never met Marling, I would simply have laid out my criticism as I normally do. However, there is a difference with this, as even inside the space of a twenty-minute interview, I could tell how incredibly smart and savvy she is. Reading interviews about the journey of this script (written prior to Sound of My Voice and touching upon experiences within both hers and Batmanglij’s lives), I feel even more like a jerk for being this harsh.

But the bottom-line is that The East feels like yet another independent movie co-opted by the mainstream. Is that such a terrible thing? Most people probably don’t think so but as a film critic, I see plenty of mainstream fare and while there’s certainly a place for it, my favorite experiences in a theater these days are discovering something new. This is not that. I still will look forward to what Marling, Batmanglij, and Cahill will have up their sleeves in the future but maybe I’ll be a bit guarded in my optimism. That’s probably more fair to both parties.

3 out of 5