The East review: content to be a mosquito when it could have been a black widow

The East yellow light Brit Marling

Brit Marling never knows what to do with her great ideas. She runs them right up to a moment when all that electric potential zaps itself out of existence in a flash.
I’m “biast” (pro): keep hoping for Brit Marling to make a truly great film…

I’m “biast” (con): …despite her track record of frustratingly gun-shy storytelling

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

And third time is the anti-charm.

My cinematic relationship with screenwriter and actor Brit Marling is now officially one of love combined with deep frustration.

I love that Marling went to Hollywood to try to become an actor and got sick of getting offered nothing but lousy roles in shitty movies — because that’s all Hollywood has for women — so she started writing for herself and making movies that bypassed the dinosaur studios. I love that she and her cowriters/directors came up with truly intriguing ideas — stuff Hollywood would never touch, stuff that would get instantly rejected because it couldn’t be pigeonholed or focus-grouped in any way that has meaning for an industry that thinks it can spreadsheet creativity — and take risks with them.

But here’s the thing. And I think it’s now safe to call it Marling’s Thing, because this is the third time it’s happened. It happened with her cowriter and director Mike Cahill on Another Earth, a science fiction drama about a young woman whose messed-up life might get a chance to fix itself when a duplicate Planet Earth, complete with duplicate billions of humans, shows up in the sky. It happened with her cowriter and director Zal Batmanglij on Sound of My Voice, about a mysterious young woman who ensnares followers for her secretive cult group by convincing them she’s [spoiler!]. And now it’s happened again with The East, another joint project with Batmanglij, a suspense drama about a young private intelligence operative who goes undercover among anarchist activists.

What happens isn’t, I think, an accident. It’s her schtick. And I wish it weren’t.

What happens is this: Marling never knows what to do with her great — brilliant, even — idea. She sets up complex characters with complicated motivations and drops them into a scenario in which their morality will be tested and in which — possibly — grand and powerful and confounding things might be said about the mess the world is in today and how that mess screws with all of us. And she runs them right up to a moment when everything starts to get really interesting and real storytelling risks are about to happen… and that’s where the movie ends. All that electric potential zaps itself out of existence in a flash. You can see it right over the horizon, the truly great movie that almost was, and then it’s all gone. And we’re left with little more than a novelty cinematic knickknack that’s about the could-have-beens and A-for-efforts and hey-at-least-they’re-trying.

I hope Marling isn’t pulling her punches. I’m hard on her work because I don’t think she is — I think she wants to make great — and genuinely original — movies. And I think she can. And I think she will. I think she’s edging closer. The situation here is more ethically knotty than she and her cowriters have created previous. The people here are sharper and more realistically rough-edged than they’ve been before. There’s plenty here to chew on, in a very satisfying way, even given the enormously frustrating wall the story runs itself into.

But it’s also clear on which side of the ethical line they’ve invented Marling and Batmanglij’s sympathies lie. There’s absolutely nothing at all wrong with that… except that here, it means that the people on the side they prefer are much more compelling and much more plausible than on the other.

See, Marling (Arbitrage) here plays an agent for Hiller Brood, a fictional version of the sort of elite “private security” firms to which both governments and globocorps outsource their dirty deeds (think Edward Snowden’s Booz Allen and the former Blackwater). One of Hiller Brood’s clients is being harassed by the “mosquito” of The East, an anarchist collective that may or may not even exist as an organization, but someone is certainly annoying the powers that be with the “jams” done in their name, comparatively minor pranks that can nevertheless be bad for PR. (In the opening jam, The East spreads oil all over the interior of the home of an oil company exec whose company spilled oil into a pristine environment; it’s revenge for all the oil-drenched seabirds and dead fish.) So Marling’s Sarah Moss goes undercover as a homeless freegan hippie and ingratiates herself with a small cell that may or may not be a part of the larger East, if it even exists at all.

Sarah is, alas, almost impossibly naive for someone who’s supposed to be a top intelligence agent — she is shocked to learn of all the corporate crimes the members of The East are incensed about, wrongdoing that ranges from dodgy pharmaceuticals being used to treat veterans to petrochemical companies polluting rivers small towns drink from. It’s not that Sarah is aware of such events and doesn’t feel there’s anything particular bad about them — it’s that she had no idea such things were happening; she’d have to be a special sort of sheltered to actually hold such a position. A passing reference is made to her devout Christianity, but this never comes further into play, either as some sort of justification for her obeisance to an authority that can by definition do no wrong, or later, as a potential moral impetus for her to begin to sympathize with the anarchists. On its own, Sarah’s religiosity doesn’t deepen her as a character in any way, nor does it in any way support her journey as a character. It feels like a forgotten thread. (Patricia Clarkson [Easy A, Shutter Island] as Sarah’s boss is, however, in a small role, absolutely horrifying, a chilling portrait of corporate sociopathy.)

The East, on the other hand, are far more developed as credible characters, most particularly Ellen Page’s (Inception, Whip It) Izzy and Alexander Skarsgård’s (Battleship, Melancholia) Benji, about whom it would spoil to say too much. Suffice to say that they argue among themselves in challenging and provocative ways that never feels like the stuff of storytelling exposition — even though it does serve that purpose, to slowly start to make Sarah question what she’s been told about them — and more like the grappling of sincere people trying to find the best thing in an impossible situation.

The problems of the world that The East is trying to tackle are far too big and much too many-tentacled for any single movie to solve them. I wouldn’t expect it to… and yet Marling and Batmanglij take us to a place, at their exasperating nonending of an ending, beyond which some juicy drama lies. I don’t know why they think this is the end of the story! It’s not even the end of the story for Sarah: it is, at best, the midpoint of her journey, and they skip over all the best parts.

It’s as if the storytellers don’t want to deal with the implications of the story they’re telling. I wish I understood why.

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