Genre: Thriller with Pretensions
Directed by: Zal Batmanglij (Sound of My Voice)
Starring: Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgård, Ellen Page, Toby Kebbell, Shiloh Fernandez, Patricia Clarkson
I really tried to like The East. I'm sure its intentions are good and it's certainly an improvement over the last collaboration between director/co-writer Zal Batmanlij and star/co-writer Brit Marling, Sound of My Voice (2012). But then it ought to be, because it's essentially the same movie all over again. The fact that this time it's Brit Marling infiltrating somebody else's cult rather than somebody infiltrating her cult makes little difference. The various components — the cult sitting around on the floor in a circle, the infiltrator being seduced by the cult, the puking scene, the cop-out ending — are little more than reshufflings. The preposterous straitjacket dinner sequence here is the silly secret handshake of Voice — only funnier. Even the dirty, tatty, filthy cult ("You smell like soap," Marling is told at one point) is just a reversal of the cleanliness-obsessed cult of the last movie. Granted, The East is better made and actually attempts to be about something. It's also much less annoying. But it still isn't very deep, its conclusions are trite and it all rests on Marling, who may well have the least charismatic screen presence around.
Marling stars as Sarah Moss, a one-time FBI agent now working for a security firm headed by an amusingly evil Patricia Clarkson. With no explanation, Sarah is presented as a Christian-radio-listening good girl with mousey brown hair. Her boss Sharon gives her the plum assignment — and a pair of Birkenstocks for disguise — of going undercover to infiltrate an anarchist terrorist group called The East. After telling her credulous-as-hell husband (Jason Ritter) she's going to Dubai on business, she gives herself a salon-quality blonde dye-job (why?), hops a rattler and easily hooks up with black eye-linered cult member Luca (Shiloh Fernandez, Evil Dead). Luca likes her so much he takes her to "a good place to eat" (a dumpster no less) before getting down to cult business. So there she is — lock, Birkenstocks and dye-job — in the thick of things. It's remarkable that all of this is played with a straight face.
Despite drawing the (too little) suspicion of some of the other cult members — especially the belligerent Izzy (Ellen Page) — Sarah is soon accepted. Unfortunately, Sarah finds herself buying into these ecoterrorists' philosophy — if not their eye-for-an-eye payback — and falling for the Manson-esque leader, Benji (Alexander Skarsgård). And there hangs the plot: Sarah's transformation into unwilling ecoterrorist. The idea is a good one, but doesn't survive the treatment, which is heavy-handed, woolly-minded and prone to clichés — especially when the film collapses in a fit of "spoiled rich kids getting back at their families" tropes. Even so, I'm not ready to write the movie off. There are good things in it. Some sequences are excellent, especially one set to a piano piece. Some things that oughtn't work actually do — like Izzy's big scene — even if they're hard to believe. These things, and the slick filmmaking, make the film worth watching, even if all we really learn is that (surprise!) cults are seductive and big corporations are evil.
Apparently Marling's fascination with cults has garnered her a cult all her own. I've seen the three movies she co-wrote — Another Earth (2011), Sound of My Voice and this — and they all strike me as smug, cliché-filled, vague and inert. Her acting is one-note, and in the movies where she's surrounded by pros — Arbitrage (2012) and The Company You Keep (2013) — the pros cancel her out, making her little more than a generic pretty girl. I keep hoping that she'll do something, either in front of or behind the camera, that will impress me, but this isn't it — even if it is something of a step up. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, violence, some disturbing images, sexual content and partial nudity.
Playing at Carolina Cinemas
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