Jun 19, 2013

The East

This movie by Zal Batmanglij, co-written by his frequent collaborator and star Brit Marling, is completely preposterous but it has a great premise. A group of disaffected  rich kids decide to give evil corporations a taste of their own medicine, by using their poisonous drugs and chemicals on them. A fabulous revenge fantasy, ain't it?
Except that revenge is never as clean.
Sarah (Marling), works for a corporate spying law firm, headed by the awesome Patricia Clarkson, and is sent to infiltrate an anarchist group, which threatens some of her firm's clients. Though she is loyal to her work, dutifully ratting out the group, she can't help but be affected by their insular hippy-dippy lifestyle, by the injustices the group tries to right and by the charms of the über-cute group leader, Alexander Skarsgård, who even with a horrifying head of hippie hair, is irresistible to the female eye. If all revolutionaries were this hot, we would live in a different world. Skarsgård is a subtle, resourceful actor, but he lacks the manic charisma that tends to be typical of revolutionary leaders. He is the nicest anarchist ever.
Marling is really good at playing steely dames, and she is very compelling here. This is a thriller starring a woman, who has a fearsome female boss, and neither of them make you miss the guys who usually star in these types of movies. Meaning: it is possible. It's great to have a female spy hero for a change. It is great to see women in powerful roles, including a very good Julia Ormond as a corporate P.R. person.
As they showed in their previous outing, Sound of My Voice, Marling and Batmanglij are interested in exploring underground movements. Last time around it was a creepy cult, now it's a revolutionary cooperative, for which they have more sympathy (therefore making the movie less creepy).
How can you deal with state-sanctioned evil? Revenge seems to unleash more evil, but sometimes the available legal options are not sufficient, particularly when the laws are there to protect corporate villains. Credit is due to the writers for not over-simplifying the thorny issue. Revenge on the corporations sounds good until it becomes a childish, unhinged prank. I had issues with the story lines of rich kids feeling shame for their parents' sins. Yes, the personal is political, but it would also be nice if the characters were just outraged, as we all are, at corporate malfeasance without a personal trauma to boost them to action. At times, the device of making everything personal risks making it borderline ridiculous.
Batmanglij is an economical, effective director and he delivers a taut, suspenseful thriller, if you overlook its hanging threads and strained plot points. But since siding 100% with the revolutionaries is not really possible for a commercial film backed by a corporation like Fox, the movie hedges its bets. The welcome ambivalence it portrays in the ideological allegiances of the characters, in whether what they are doing is righteous or infantile, leads to an equally ambivalent, unconvincing ending that robs the movie of power. Still, Batmanglij and Marling are making small, contrary movies that are well worth following.

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