VOD film review: The East
Ivan Radford | On 23, Oct 2013Reading time: 2 mins
Director: Zal Batmanglij
Cast: Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgård, Ellen Page, Toby Kebbell
Watch The East online in the UK: TalkTalk TV / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
Last year, Sound of My Voice rounded off 2012’s trio of cult-based dramas with a fascinating undercover sci-fi tale. The East continues in a similar vein, swapping out time-travelling cults for an eco-terrorist cell but retaining its main weapon: co-writer and star Brit Marling. The result? A cracking movie that sees Zal Batmanglij carve out a niche for himself for small, intelligent thrillers.
Sarah (Marling) works for a secretive security company that spies on spies. Hired to infiltrate the titular espionage group, she is caught in a web of lies, liars and people lying about lying. Sure enough, the lies pile upon even more lies when she finds herself questioning her own morals – and falling for The East’s intensely jumpered leader (Skarsgard).
It’s a predictable line to tread, but The East does well not to walk it straight away. Instead, Batmanglij lets Marling take her time to get to know them: the rich rebellious one (Page), the smart one (Kebbell), the enigmatic and aloof boss. The group itself is a fairly stereotypical bunch, but the actors bring an emotional edge to the political tensions.
Corporate responsibility, activism, the environment; they all get a look in, but these big ideas are vehicles for a deceptively small script. Campaigns against pollution turn into family-driven tiffs, while secretive plotting descends into unexpected scenes of spin the bottle. With their beards, woolly sweaters and chunky back-stories, you’ll find yourself wondering how on earth these laughable terrorists are meant to be taken seriously- the odd fluke aside, they’re actually quite rubbish.
But that’s the point. The East is as much about what drives these people to become activists as the thrill of them trying to pull off their undercover acts.
The cast distract you before you have the chance to start performing untrained surgery on the plot. Ellen Page is strong as a conflicted daddy’s girl, while Brit Marling blurs the line between duty and loyalty like an attention-sucking vacuum – her unbalanced determination makes it hard to look anywhere else. It’s impressive, then, to see the always-excellent Toby Kebbell steal scenes away from her as a revenge-fuelled doctor.
The East could have become an exercise in familiar plot points, but Zal’s edgy direction, cutting quickly yet slowly advancing the plot, is the perfect conduit for Marling’s talents: with her in the lead, you can’t tell what she’s going to do next. Even her eating out of a rubbish bin seems believable. Together, the pair create an absorbing exploration of people rather than politics; a character drama dressed up as a thriller that’s both gripping and provocative.