Brit Marling proves yet again that she is destined for big things in The East, a fast-paced tale of intrigue, espionage and environmental politics. It’s set in a very modern world we all recognise - with underground anarchist groups rising to attack the big wigs.
Directed by Zal Batmanglij (who worked with Marling on Sound of My Voice) we follow the story of former FBI agent, Sarah Moss, on her first big gig as a private investigator. She infiltrates anarchist group The East, whose mission it is to take down major corporations responsible for environmental damage and deceitful working practices. Both films Marling and Batmanglij have collaborated on have parallel themes - primarily reconnaissance, deception and underground followings - this is clearly something that the filmmakers are intrigued by and are passionate about exploring. It’s obvious, from the beginning, that The East has not only been influenced by what’s going on in news headlines, but by contemporary thriller films such as Enemy of The State, the Bourne trilogy and the work of Kathryn Bigelow. The editing is tight, the story is simple enough to follow and to, somewhat, believe, with just the right amount of a tense atmosphere and shady cover-ups/reveals to keep up the momentum.
Marling plays secret agent Sarah with a reserved innocence that we’re used to from her performance in Another Earth - Sarah is quietly curious and acts, through most of the film, as our eyes as she explores this world that is so alien to her. The group of activists and angry 20-somethings, with their stereotypical mismatched clothing, ratty Birkenstocks, vintage glasses and stylishly unkempt hair, is led by dashing Benji (Alexander Skarsgard - Eric Northman as you’ve never seen him before, complete with Jesus hair and dirty fingernails). Ellen Page plays fiery Izzy, who is sceptical of Sarah’s arrival initially, but warms to her so much that, off camera, somewhere along the way, it’s obvious she actually falls in love with the new member. Newcomer Shiloh Fernandez is excellent as Luca, who initiates Sarah into the group and harbours a bit of a crush of his own on their fair leader. Toby Kebbell, the group intellectual and doctor, completes this circle of misfits who are self-sufficient and very much a family unit, with their strange little rituals and sophisticated technology underneath the decrepit mansion they call home that helps them carry out their ‘jams’ or attacks on targeted corporations.
The look of the film often cuts from the jarrish and clinical - the action scenes, the shots of Sarah’s very beige apartment, and anything relating to the corporate world - to something that is organic and incredible beautiful - the old house where The East live, the woods, the lakes. It feels very fairytale-like at times, especially as we follow Sarah around in her disguise which includes a prominently displayed lace-hood, covering the top of her head like she’s little red riding hood. But who is the big bad wolf, exactly? Her agency, the corporations, or The East’s charismatic leader Benji?
The East is beautiful but formulaic when you get down to the nuts and bolts of it. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of standard formula though, and it’s good to see a topical but often bypassed issue take center stage. Marling and Batmaglij are a very fine duo indeed.
Screenings at EDINBURGH FILM FESTIVAL
Thursday 20th June, 6:00pm, Cineworld 3
Sunday 23rd June, 1:15pm, Cineworld 3
EAST END FILM FESTIVAL
Wednesday 26th June, 8:45pm, Hackney Picture House