IFFBoston: The East Review

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rating: 3.5

The East is a schizophrenic film. It€™s a thriller, yet it€™s final act feels more like a whimper than a bang. It asks big questions, then gives small answers. It wants to force serious thought, but has a handful of clunky, laughable scenes. Yet still it is entertaining throughout, so I cannot call it a failure. Co-written by star Brit Marling, The East plays out as an ethical and moral questionnaire. Marling plays an agent at an independent security firm who is tasked with infiltrating an anarchist, eco-terrorist group known as The East. The East is responsible for attacking major corporations and turning their supposed crimes against them; an early scene shows them flooding the home of a major oil corporation€™s CEO with oil after they experience a BP-esque spill. Sure enough, Marling finds the group, but soon finds herself not only connecting with their message, but also with their mysterious leader Benji (Alexander Skarsgård). The film, directed and co-written by Zal Batmanglij (who worked with Marling on last year€™s Sound of My Voice) is crafted with driving, focused precision. So much happens over the course of the film (just under 2 hours), but we never feel like we€™re getting too much at once. We also never feel any drag or down time, which is crucial in a film like this. It springs to life early, grabs us, and barrels ahead until its ending, never letting up or slowing down. CORRECT the_east-1 What keeps the film from reaching the greatness it aspires to is, sadly, its writing. I€™ve been a big fan of Marling€™s writing throughout her career; only two years ago I saw Another Earth (co-written with director Mike Cahill) at this same festival and was blown away by it. But here, her and Batmanglij are working on a much larger scale than they have in the past, and it seems they don€™t know how to hold the tone of the writing throughout the film. There are scenes that feel horribly forced and out of place, and a couple of lines that draw laughs without meaning to. But most disappointing is the way that The East lets up on its moral questioning. Much like Sound of My Voice, The East deals heavily with issues of individual identity versus group identity. Marling is constantly forced to reconsider who the real guilty parties are (The East of those they target), but the rather then letting us ponder this question and make up our own minds, The East provides answers that seem undercooked. I€™ve always admired Marling€™s films for staring into deep, dark territories and asking questions without knowing the answers. Here, the lack of ambiguity actually weakens the film. We can see this entire issue at play in the film€™s final scenes, where had it cut to credits after a certain scene (you€™ll know it when you see it) rather than running on, it would€™ve been a perfect ending. It€™s entirely possible that I€™m judging The East on a harder curve because of what I€™ve come to expect from Marling, and make no mistake, this is still a good film. It just isn€™t the film we expect or want it to be, more commercial than cerebral, more concerned with thrilling us than prodding us and making us think. In the end it just feels a bit empty, and we can€™t help but wonder what could€™ve been had it been just a bit bolder.
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David Braga lives in Boston, MA, where he watches movies, football, and enjoys a healthy amount of beer. It's a tough life, but someone has to live it.