Film review: ‘The East’ is an almost sci-fi political thriller
Director: Zal Batmanglij
Stars: Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgard
1 (out of 5) Globes
There’s such a thing as a radical activist left in America, but you’ll learn nothing about it from watching “The East,” the second feature collaboration (after “The Sound of My Voice”) between writer/director Zal Batmanglij and actress/writer Brit Marling. Activism typically proceeds via endless arguments about strategy and ideology, none of which happen in this almost sci-fi take on “eco-terrorism.” In the opening, the titular group manages to break into the house of an oil company CEO and pumps crude oil through his vents, flooding his house just as his company’s 15 million-gallon leak poisoned the ocean. The image is arresting — like “The Shining” with petroleum instead of blood — but it’s totally implausible.
Monitoring extreme activists is the province of the FBI in reality, but here protagonist Sarah (Marling) works for Hiller Brood, a business focused on infiltrating and subverting such groups on behalf of corporate clients. Taking to the road, she manages to find the right people to get her into the gang, led by slumming rich kid Benji (Alexander Skarsgard), boasting the full beard of a bona-fide cult leader. Sarah is a Christian (we know this because she wears a crucifix necklace and prays), so it’s inevitable that her time embedded in The East will undermine both her faith and her belief in the righteousness of her employers.
These activists plan their disruptions (dubbed “jams”) in an isolated rural mansion. In an especially ludicrous scene, Sarah’s made to wear a straightjacket to dinner, with everyone else at the table also straightjacketed. There’s a point to this scene but it’s unbelievably dumb, leading her to correctly wonder why self-righteousness and activism always go hand-in-hand. “The East” is silent on this score, instead working through a rote ethical inquisition about whether violent nihilism or positive dialogue is more effective as an activist strategy. (Guess which wins?)
This is sort of an action film, with The East planning their activities with “Ocean’s Eleven” meticulousness, but there’s no punch or suspense to these sequences. Benji and the gang come off like the same kind of idiots as the animal activists led by Brad Pitt in “Twelve Monkeys,” but there’s no joke intended. (The inadvertently funniest moment is Ellen Page yelling, “This is my jam!”) This dull parallel political universe has nothing to tell us about our own.