The East is one of those frustrating movies. Frustrating in the way it seems to have a message dancing on the tip of its tongue, but doesn’t have the balls to blurt it out. Like two lovers awkwardly standing there unable to say “I love you”. Stripped of all its parts, it’s basically the eco-terrorist version of Avatar, as an agent (played brilliantly by Brit Marling, who also has a co-screenwriting credit) is sent to infiltrate an anarchist group targeting corporations with potentially lethal tastes of their own medicine, only to eventually fall for their manifesto and for Alexander Skasgård’s perfectly toned butt. She then, unsurprisingly, spends the rest of the movie questioning her allegiance, because butts will make you do those kinds of things.
What was this movie trying to tell me, though? Was it a call to arms or an exploration of the limits at which activism becomes terrorism? Anyone’s guess, really. Every moment which seemed to point towards inner meaning quickly fell apart because the dialogue was so flat that every proclamation by the anarchist group just came off completely clichéd. They just seemed like a string of grandiose, vague statements. “Spy on us, we’ll spy on you.” Does this really have anything to do with dumping chemicals in a lake? I mean, really, it would have been way more appropriate for a movie about Edward Snowden (topical joke, tick). Oddly, the dialogue seemed at its most meaningless when uttered by Ellen Page, someone who shot to fame pretty much entirely thanks to her onscreen charisma in Juno, but here seems totally devoid of life or interest. Skasgård, who at least seems to come off pretty strong at first as the mysterious leader who mumbles through his beard and slouches around like a teenager, also became far less interesting the more he talked.
Then there came the scenes which were meant to picture the community dynamic of the group. They play weird, extra-huggy versions of spin the bottle and all wash each other. All the kinds of things people who a super comfortable with each other do and which usually ends in an orgy. But again, what was this movie trying to say about it? It seemed neither to quite laud it nor quite critique it. The film’s attempt at a love story only seemed to further muddy the water by simply not taking up enough screentime to really seem significant in any way. This movie was frustrating because it left me feeling totally unchallenged and I ended up saying “yes” to using a plastic bag to carry my shopping home without experiencing any kind of existential crisis. Which is exactly the opposite of what I would have liked to happen.
Now, I know you’ve probably looked at the star rating, then read down to here wondering why, oh why, I could justify such a high rating. The thing is, for all The East‘s faults, when stripped from its search for meaning, it surprisingly functions pretty successfully as a plain-old, Hollywood-gloss thriller. Those grandiose, vague statements then become less the actions of a film that doesn’t have the balls to challenge its viewers, but instead works as the kind of slick, cool-sounding dialogue needed to drive a plot forward. Sure, it’s kind of disappointing that this is the way this movie turned out, but honestly I stopped caring by the time the grand finale rolled in, with all its twists and turns, and I was fully experiencing the emotion of “suspense”.
Maybe The East just suffers from the wrong choice of topic. If it wanted to be a straight-forward thriller, it made a mistake trying to broach such a controversial topic, in which it essentially attempts to find the justification behind acts of terrorism. It’s just not a topic to play tame with, not one to be touched upon without fully engaging in every aspect of its complexity and significance. To be honest, they might have been better off making a movie about someone kidnapping someone’s daughter.
DIRECTOR: ZAL BATMANGLIJ
WRITERS: ZAL BATMANGLIJ & BRIT MARLING
STARS: BRIT MARLING, ALEXANDER SKASGÅRD, ELLEN PAGE
RUNTIME: 116 MIN