What I like about Brit Marling, who co-wrote (with director Zal Batmanglij) and stars in THE EAST, is that you can see her thinking, not in a mugging, brow-wrinkling, eyes-going-wide way, but in the faintest modulations of expression, a parted lip, a linger in the look, a shift in the weight. There is something alert and mentally active about her, not surprising in that she plays an undercover operative in THE EAST who is, after all, trying to figure things out, but in truth I have seen this quality in her before. She plays the thought as another might the action or the feeling or the word. You see realizations hit her, as in the moment when the eco-anarchist group she has infiltrated sits straitjacketed around the dinner table and must show her how to eat. A liquid horror settles on her face, like water growing still, at the renunciation of self that the act of collective feeding implies to her.
But that is early in the investigation and her hostility is mollified as she recognizes not only what the eco-cell is about but also what their corporate adversaries are. THE EAST is about how she arrives at a form of ethical response that is appropriate to her, if not to others. The script to which Marling contributed is smart like her, a potent and revealing juxtaposition of naturalist detail and tabloid portrayal. The targeted corporations have absurdly concocted names, just a little more so than the real ones: the private security firm that Marling works for calls itself Hiller Brood. And there are lots of improbabilities and loose ends in the plot and the presentation, that, however – and this is important – are plainly a stylistic choice, as though only through unreality can the constructed reality we live in be revealed. That the corporate state is as easily exposed as the film’s ending implies should and does feel impossible, for the challenge in confronting it is greater than the sum of the individual acts that can be taken against it. There is a thought provoking quality to the loose end or sloughed off explanation in Marling’s world, or worlds: it is no accident that her first film was called Another Earth.
The world of THE EAST is gripping in its way, thoughtful but also emotionally stimulating. Alexander Skarsgård and Ellen Page are the emotive foils to Marling’s intellectual coolness, and each pulls her out of it in a different way. Like any more or less realistic fiction, the film makes a world that is similar to our own but just a little different, and what distinguishes this fictional world from most others is that there is no effort to conceal the difference. From that, realization comes, and the possibility of change is manifested along with a recognition of the difficulty that effecting it would entail.
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