Eco warriors awry – ★★★★
Zal Batmanglij clearly likes films about weird groups of people. In his feature debut The Sound of My Voice, the director (who trivia fans will enjoy is an older brother to Rostam Batmanglij of the band Vampire Weekend) told the story of a strangely inviting cult. The film didn’t quite work for me, but it showed massive amounts of potential and put the director and his star Brit Marling (who’d already impressed in Another Earth) firmly on the map. Since then Marling has gone on to be an ethereal presence in films like Another Earth, Arbitrage and Robert Redford’s The Company You Keep.
Batmanglij and Marling have paired up once again to bring us The East, which sees Marling (Sarah) playing a private investigator for a security firm who goes undercover to infiltrate a group of (deep breath)… freegan, anarchist, eco-warrior activists. The group, known as “The East” and led by Alexander Skarsgård’s Benji, are based in an abandoned house in the middle of nowhere and target big corporations who they feel are doing harm to the environment through their activities. So doing stuff like water contamination, pollution means The East are going to publicly shame you, or if some of the members of the group (like Ellen Page’s Izzy) have their way, hurt you.
Sarah works hard to infiltrate the group, hopping trains, riding a beat-up bike and going along with the dumpster-diving, crusty way of life. Once she’s inside it’s fun to see her have to do stuff like hiding her phone in her shoe and climb trees at the crack of dawn to check in with her boss (Patricia Clarkson). The sea-change in how she sees the world, the company she’s working for and the people she’s supposed to be investigating is the film’s central narrative arc and it’s all handled brilliantly. Marling’s acting has always had an ethereal, aloof quality to it, but here she adds a few rougher edges and it’s hard not to keep your eyes on her throughout the film’s two hour runtime.
The East are a well-developed collective and it’s nice to see Batmanglij and Marling taking time in their screenplay to try to flesh out some of the supporting players (outcasts including a doctor, a hacker, a deaf girl) a little bit too. But while their activities are all very honourable but it’s hard not to find their actions and manner a little self-righteous. The film falls away a little bit in the final twenty minutes following an accident at one of their “jams” and never really recovers.A quick word for poor Jason Ritter. Son of the popular TV star John Ritter (the Dad in “8 Simple Rules”), he has nothing to do here except play the dumb, unaware boyfriend who thinks Sarah is working for the government in Dubai, he’s great at it.
Lastly it should be acknowledged that the film is one of the final film credits for Tony Scott, who died last August in an apparent suicide. He and his brother Ridley came on board with their Scott Free production group to help with financing of the film.
While the film resembles a student film in that it throws a whole lot of ideas and cool things at the audience, it’s also a really strong effort that is definitely worth seeing. Batmanglij has safely graduated from “one to watch”.
USA, UK / Directed By: Zal Batmanglij / Written By: Zal Batmanglij, Brit Marling / Starring: Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgård, Ellen Page, Patricia Clarkson, Toby Kebbell, Jason Ritter / 116min / Drama / Release: 28 June 2013 (Ireland, UK), 31 May 2013 (USA), 7 June 2013 (Canada)
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