by Nathaniel R., published on Saturday, June 22, 2013 - 7:00AM|
This thriller hitches a ride with an undercover FBI agent (Brit Marling) as she infiltrates an eco-terrorist cult of sorts. The collective is led by (Skarsgård) and (Ellen Page) who both hold secrets. The group preys on CEOs of bio oil and big pharma and gives them a taste of their own medicine in various quite upsetting ways (like the super-creepy opening sequence in which oil begins to seep through the walls of a CEO's house like a residential oil spill. Page explains their righteous crimes in voiceover with creepy missionary zeal.
Though The East isn't always surprising as it plays with expected suspense and political thriller tropes, it is always engrossing which is more than most films can say. I was with it right from its opening scene up until the frankly terrible flash-forward style ending which gets cold feet about the previously hopeless nihilism and fascinating moral thickets.
The ensemble work is quite strong across the board but I admit that I didn't know quite what to make of the blonde charisma (gap?) collision between Skarsgård, who as in True Blood, is both unbearably sexy and weirdly docile considering all the bite in his bark, and Marling. Does the actor coast on his beauty and disarming ability of looking through people or is he just naturally drawn to roles where his beauty is essential? As for his scene partner, I fully admit that I don't know what to make of Brit Marling. At times she strikes me as lost sibling of the Gummers, the one with personality. I haven't seen her in many pictures but I'll admit I thought she was a wash in Arbitrage. There's a certain blank slate emptiness to her face that suggests that anything could be projected on to it (acting bonus points!) which makes her a natural for the subject of cults (a subject her writer/director is clearly drawn to since she also played muse for him in his earlier cult-themed feature The Sound of My Voice). But othertimes the emptiness is just that, and frustratingly opaque. But it's interesting to see her working through the possibilities of this character who doesn't totally resist the allure of the identity-dissolve and hive mind required of cult members.
I'm interested to see more even if I'm not sure what it is that I've already seen. Are you?
Best in Show: In miniature I have to bow down to our beloved Patricia Clarkson for two perfect moments: first the spiky cocktail she mixes in her introduction, sweet co-conspiratorial charm with a splash of condescension; second, and most impactfully, a hair-raising moment when Marling phones her from a Big Pharma dinner party with truly horrific news. I won't spoil the surprise but damn did Patty ever nail that key scene.
Oscar Chances: The East is probably not high enough profile to earn traction for its screenplay. True out of nowhere sleepers, the kind that build momentum all on their own without "pedigree", are so rare nowadays but historically speaking their best shots are usually in something like Screenplay. But this sure is a strong mainstream calling card for its writer/director Zal Batmanglij. (He has "Batman" right there in his name so he's already won, regardless.)