' Cinema Romantico: The East

Monday, June 10, 2013

The East

Eco Terrorists are totally the new Mafia. What I mean by that statement is that in a world where environmental activism has become so prevalent, perhaps we stand on a precipice of environmental terrorists occupying a place on the silver screen once held famously by Dons and tommy-gun wielding hit men.


Structurally, "The East", the second film from the immensely promising tandem of Brit Marling (writer/actress) and Zal Batmanglij (writer/director), is not much different from, say, "Donnie Brasco." Undercover agent infiltrates tight knit, criminally active organization. Undercover agent feels self both attracted and repulsed by life. Undercover agent's home life falls apart. And so on. Yet, for all the similarities, there are also many differences, notably in its ideological motivations. "The East" is not entirely successful but it's almost always interesting, and ultimately held together by the stoic magnetism of its lead actress.

So often these stories of clandestine agents involve male agents being told by male superiors "You're in too deep!", but one of the more intriguing aspects of "The East" is the way it flips these very traditional gender roles. Here both the agent (Marling) and her superior (Patricia Clarkson, so welcoming and distant at once) are women, and the superior tells the agent that it is expected to get in too deep. The question then becomes: are you in touch enough to recognize it and overcome it? I dare say that is a level of awareness somewhat beyond the male mind.

Marling's agent is Jane, a young, steely, ambitious, and God-fearing woman who departs the FBI for an intelligence firm called Hiller Brood tasked to guard the secrets of giant American moneymaking corporations. So Jane re-christens herself Sarah and leaves behind her sensible wardrobe and kind husband (Jason Ritter) for life as a dumpster diving tramp at the behest of Clarkson's Sharon in an attempt to infiltrate an eco terror cell that has dubbed themselves The East. Quickly, for the running time's sake, she finds herself ensnared in the group which is living well off the grid.


The leader is Benji, a naturalist lothario who in his first appearance puts Sarah in a strait jacket and poses a psychological test by way of dinner. Played by Alexander Skarsgard with artfully unkempt hair, he often comes across more like the leader of a cult than a radical tree-hugger. At the point he asks Sarah if he and his cohorts can "wash" her in a lake you may assume it won't be long until he busts out the raw vegan Kool-Aid. He and his merry band of anarchists perpetrate "jams", incursions directed at Big Business in the name of the environment. Well, theoretically.

As each jam unfolds, the more we realize they have less to do with "The East's" overall aim - which is not necessarily established with any clear rhetoric - than with personalized vendettas. Forlorn Izzy (Ellen Page) still has daddy issues, it seems, and Doc (Toby Kebbell) seeks vengeance in the name of his sister. And having seen "If A Tree Falls", the Oscar nominated documentary from 2011 about the hell raising eco activists Earth Liberation Front, this detail feels exactly right. What gets lost in the translation of these terrorist (if that's the word you wish to use) acts is their supposed altruistic intent.

What also gets lost is Jane/Sarah's mission the deeper her cover gets. Lives are endangered by a jam and so she places a call to Sharon who coolly, cruelly tells her there is nothing they can do because the jam does not directly threaten their "client". Who and what is she really fighting for? This is the question that drives "The East."


The question, however, finds itself tangled up in maybe one too many potential answers. Despite being based around the requisite incongruous twist, the end initially seems to be agenda-less and of an open-ended variety. Alas, rather than simply fade to black the film offers up ham-fisted images over the closing credits that are essentially the cinematic version of the over-enthusiastic clipboard holders on the sidewalk who approach (attack) you with cries of "Do you have a minute for the environment?!" They may as well hand out fliers at the theater door. I respect Marling and Batmanglij for having ideals but at the movies storytelling should never be forsaken in the name of them.

The real story is Jane's awakening as she feels herself becoming more attached to Sarah. At first, she has it all figured out. But, of course, she doesn't. Everyone's attitude - whether Benji's or Sharon's - feels suspect to her and so, untraditionally, she carves out her own way of thinking. Marling goes a long way in convincing us of this arc, beautifully playing the part in such a way that it feels as if all her decisions are genuinely being made in the face of what she is experiencing. That sounds elementary but is actually advanced level.

By the time she is eating an apple out of the trash - a magnificent moment which is funny, moving and discomforting - you will damn sure believe that the character believes this is the right thing to do.

3 comments:

Wretched Genius said...

Brit Marling is rapidly becoming my new cinematic crush. And even though I thought she was spellbinding in The Sound of My Voice, I'll always think of her primarily as Britta's (non-)lesbian girlfriend on Community.

Nick Prigge said...

I'm still most partial to her character in Another Earth. But that probably goes without saying. That's totally my kind of movie.

Gail Orth-Aikmus said...

The reality is:
1. There is an antibiotic causing the exact symptoms portrayed in the film, they are called Fluoroquinolones.
2. If you listen to the news caster in the movie you will hear the name Fluoroquinolones, and how it was used during the Gulf War to vaccinate our troops against Anthrax - the "Gulf War Syndrome" the soldiers suffer from is actually the adverse reactions to the Fluoroquinolone vaccination used, Cipro.
3. Bayer, along with Johnson & Johnson, and the FDA, are all fully aware of how thousands of people have been stricken by the serious adverse reactions to Fluoroquinolones. The three most common prescribed are Avelox, Cipro, and Levaquin - but even with the profits in the billions from the sale of these medications, not one dime has been spent by any of them to research why is it happening, how to reverse, or repair the damage it has caused to the thousands of patients who trusted that the medication they were taking was safe.
It's obvious to those who suffer from Fluoroquinolone Toxicity Syndrome that the makers of this film did their research prior to making the film, and were spot on in their portrayal of the symptoms of the adverse effects of this antibiotic. This is a classic "Truth is stranger than Fiction" when it come to Fluoroquinolones. The pharmaceutical companies want the world to believe these reactions are rare, when they are not. It has been estimated that 1 out of 10 people will have some type of reaction to these antibiotics ranging from mild to severe. The pharmaceutical companies are willing to let the "few" suffer for the "greater good." Most people know and understand the risk of tendon damage and rupture from Fluoroquinolones, because the pharmaceutical companies were forced to place a warning on the antibiotics - FORCED being the operative word here. They are NOT going to acknowledge any other reaction they are not forced to do. The scariest part of the whole movie - what does it tell you when Hollywood "gets it" before the FDA does?