Former FBI agent Sarah Moss (Brit Marling) may lay her head on a lot of different pillows at night, but she never seems to actually sleep. Instead, she’s lying awake staring up at the ceiling, or keeping her eyes shut pretending to be asleep to assuage one companion or another. Oddly, in this implausible political drama from director Zal Batmanglij, Sarah’s insomnia doesn’t call much attention to itself. There’s no subtext we’re meant to extrapolate: She’s simply a woman having to live ever warily.
Understandably, it must be said, as she’s working undercover for a private corporate investigation firm, infiltrating an anarchic collective whose goal is to force corporate leaders to suffer similar fates to what their conglomerates are wreaking on the planet.The East is a small group of eco-terrorists whose mission statement includes the stipulation that if “you spy on us, we’ll spy on you.” Infiltrating the group, Sarah soon meets their ringleader, Benji (Alexander Skarsgard), a former wealthy kid looking to make the wrong things right. Attending him in their small group is also Izzy (Ellen Page), another former silver spooner, with a particular beef against her father, the CEO of an environmentally toxic company that has deeply polluted the nearby water system with its sludge; and Doc (Toby Kebbell), a former medical student whose career was cut short by a supposed wonder drug that has left him with nerve damage and a tendency toward seizures.
Soon enough, Sarah is brought in on one of their capers at a fancy evening gala, one that leaves many fat-cat bureaucrats potentially poisoned. Still, she soldiers on, returning to the collective after a brief sojourn back home to spend time with her forgettable drudge of a boyfriend (Jason Ritter), supposedly to gain further intel, but ostensibly becoming more and more sympathetic to the collective’s cause, if not their methods. Eventually, she and Benji strike a deeper note in their relationship and Sarah is forced to choose between betraying this man and his dedicated followers, or her tough, task-minded boss (Patricia Clarkson) at the company she supposedly represents.
Marling is an ascendant actress whose quiet strength and keen intellect shine through the second she appears on screen. She is also a rare commodity: an actress whose intelligence and empathy are on greater display than her considerable beauty. Despite some larger-budget leanings (she was in last year’s fine Arbitrage and Robert Redford’s less successful The Company You Keep), she seems content to work with her friend Zal Batmanglij and produce low-cost indies that stay largely under the radar.It’s an admirable stand - I very much doubt we will soon be seeing her as a comic put-upon mother with a passel of unruly kids or in a brain-locked rom-com with Ryan Reynolds, and for that I am eternally thankful - but as an aspiring screenwriter, her storytelling mechanics are still too unsophisticated at this point to be convincing, which means her projects are greatly under utilizing their single most potent asset: her.
As Sarah, she brings her considerable acting chops to bear, attempting to flesh out Sarah’s wafer-thin character with a practiced emotional focus. The problem is, the script she co-wrote with Batmanglij is terribly thin and gives her very little from which to draw.
In their previous collaborations, the underrated Another Earth, and the slightly less effective The Sound of Her Voice, Marling and Batmanglij were able to create modestly off-beat, quasi-sci-fi representations of our own world, allowing them plenty of wiggle room when it came to the hard and fast specifics of their plot. Here, though, with a film supposedly representing our own planet and time, they still are working in wonderland.
Corporations, as imperious and uncaring as they might be, still can’t act with the super-villain impunity they are shown to here (a drug manufactured by a major pharmaceutical company is so untested as to be absolutely criminal - a fact that would have been happily gobbled up by a veritable army of personal claims lawyers; Izzy’s father’s company knowingly sluices off enormous amounts of arsenic into a local waterway that devastates a small town nearby - a fact brazenly admitted to by the company’s nearly hysteric CEO upon her abduction by the group), nor would this collective have any chance of advancing as far as they do before the FBI would have ferreted them out.
To take but one example, we’re asked to believe that this unprofessional, ill-prepared team manages to noisily infiltrate a swanky corporate party for the big pharma company, and slip the company’s own drug into the toasting champagne, claim full responsibility via the Internet the next day, and still somehow not be found out, despite being the only uninvited guests at the entire affair.
Sloppy plot anchors and contradictory elements abound here, reducing the film’s earnest politics into little more than an imbalanced polemic. Marling and Batmanglij might be dead on about the nature of corporate greed and the essential disregard for ethical code in full-blown capitalism, but this film is so simplistic and far-fetched, it’s all too easy to disregard as leftist blather. For every convincing scene (Sarah’s baptismal bath at the hands of several of her comrades in the collective’s nearby pond is particularly effective), there are three that remind us just how unconvincing everything else is.
Worse, Sarah’s “conversion” feels largely unearned and even more unfelt. One minute, she’s back at her corporate headquarters, gleefully giving a report on her findings to a conference table full of jowly, white upper management types; the next, she’s dressed in rags, eating trash and getting physically involved with the group’s ringleader.
The whole thing feels strident and naive, a well-meaning drama composed by a couple of college kids for their Environmental Science final. I still firmly believe in Marling’s talent - she’s one of the few actresses of her generation who actually work better as a leading woman than as part of a smaller ensemble - but she will need to conjure up more convincing material than this for herself if she ever wants to reach her considerable potential.
The East 82 Cast: Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgard, Ellen Page, Jason Ritter, Toby Kebbell, Patricia Clarkson Director: Zal Batmanglij Rating: PG-13, for thematic elements, violence, some disturbing images, sexual content and partial nudity Running time: 116 minutes
MovieStyle, Pages 27 on 07/05/2013
Print Headline: The East