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The Oscar Buzz Review: "The East" is a Bold and Ambitious Yet Distant Political Thriller
by Def Man, published on Tuesday, June 25, 2013 - 5:21 PM
As we enter the summer season, it is time to notice those films that could stand a chance at the Oscars. As I stated in a recent post, there are some that stand a chance (so far, Frances Ha has sadly been axed). The East being one of the more prominent ones, if solely because of its political activism narrative that draws back on former nominees like All the President's Men. However, upon watching the film, it may seem bolder to nominate The East simply because it isn't a typical political thriller. It has a lot of bizarre things going on at its core.
The East is about a group of political activists who try and shut down big corporations. Their motto is "You spy on us, we'll spy on you." Through extreme measures, they have received news coverage and are considered fugitives. One day, Sarah (Brit Marling) is assigned to infiltrate and take down the group from the inside. Slowly the group unwinds with cult-like behaviors that involve eating trash and practicing bizarre, animal-like rituals.
The film is immediately striking and authentic. It wears its politics proudly and does so without bashing it over the viewer's head. However, it creates a bleak reality, suggesting that two wrongs don't make a right, and we are all wrong. The East tries to point out the truths of the little man while realizing it is a vicious cycle. Somehow those involved with the East end up being the heroes in the story, but simply because that is what is needed. Otherwise, it is up to you to decide who is the lesser of two evils.
It is also at times uncomfortable to watch, as we dive deeper and deeper into the cult nature of the group. There is a very impersonal attitude towards everything and each character comes across as a psycho. Of course, this is done within the confines of the film, where nothing is over the top and almost everything has a menacing vibe. There's even character reveals to display motives, but in the end, there isn't enough known about anyone to make them sympathetic, just reasonable in their arguments.
Brit Marling brings a great performance to the role, as she introduces us to this strange world. She may seem flat at times, but it is only to accent the rest of the menacing world that is brilliantly built by director Zal Batmanglij and co-writer Marling. The espionage and tension of each scenes builds to a solid ending that reveals something about the real motives behind the East. It may not be pleasant, but it gives a nice base for the film's mysterious appeal.
If there is any complaints, the film is at times too calculated. It knows what it is doing and it manages to succeed nicely. However, the film's characters often feel cold and do typical actions, leaving little suspense. Besides big reveals towards the end, this story is pretty standard despite it going into a strange, new world. The East ends up being a worthwhile movie simply because it is different, though not different enough to be great. It manages to say a lot about politics and our connection to nature, but not in a fulfilling manner.
As you could probably predict, this is another movie that could easily be struck out of the Oscar race. I will admit that it isn't from lack of trying. In a year of humdrum features so far, there have been little that have been as ambitious as The East. It doesn't care if the audience is on board for most of the ride, and instead paints the picture regardless on how it will be perceived. The East definitely has a lot of good things going for it, but when it comes to Best Picture material, it probably will not make the cut unfortunately. Of course, I am still rooting for Spring Breakers or Stoker to get in there, but my niche tastes are obviously not going to correlate.
If there is one section that the film could succeed, I would hope that it stands a chance in the Best Original Screenplay nomination. While I cannot personally admit to noticing a trend, I feel like when films like Moonrise Kingdom can get in, there is little to stop other independent films. True, it is all predicated on the popularity and familiarity of the film makers, but in the past, I have noticed nominees like In the Loop and Frozen River to be included. These are by no means mainstream fare and definitely have a political edge to it. If the screenplay for The East was successful in one field, it was in writing.
Even the Best Picture field, while eventually unlikely, isn't totally far fetched. With the 5-10 slot nomination pallet, it does allow for more obscure films to get in. Winter's Bone seems to be one of the more striking selections, as it got into the race rather successfully. It was just as bleak as The East, but possibly had a more noticeable performance in Jennifer Lawrence. As good as Brit Marling is in the film, I do not know that this is the film to get her into the race. She has been an indie darling for some time, but not to the extent that will get her an underdog nomination.
At most, we could probably see Ellen Page get a Best Supporting Actress nomination. Along with Alexander Skarsgard, she has a rather beefy role that requires her to do a lot of crazy things. She plays against type in a menacing and almost maniacal manner. At very least, this could get her noticed by the Academy, who enjoy against type roles when done right. Having been nominated for Best Actress for Juno, she can be noticed as not playing a comedic role. Of course, her coming off of Hard Candy could be the same story in reverse and definitely helps Marling's underdog chances if you follow that logic. However, Juno was a massive hit upon release. The East is more modest and feels like it is geared towards a more niche audience.
Overall, I liked the film, but cannot really say that I loved it. It isn't standard enough to be forgettable, but it does have a cold nature that definitely feels off putting. It challenges the audience, and that may be all it needs to succeed. Still, as an Oscar nominee, I do not see this film standing a chance. While the Academy has begun to recognize smaller films, I don't feel like this one is transcendent enough to be in that group. I would love to see it for a Best Original Screenplay nomination, but we'll have to see what else is out there this year.