Judging one movie by comparing it to another is a practice I typically find reductive, but it may just be necessary in the case of Zal Batmanglij’s The East, which is so structurally and thematically similar to the director’s previous film, Sound of My Voice, that it cannot be helped. I was a big fan of that film – which, like The East, Batmanglij co-wrote with lead actress Brit Marling – but even as it works within an identical narrative framework, The East is a wooden and unappealing chore, stepping into pitfalls its predecessor avoided and layering a clunky level of political soap-boxing onto a story ill-suited for those discussions.
Like Sound of My Voice, The East is about an ambitious, curious go-getter trying to rise in their given field (journalism in Sound, private espionage in The East) by assuming a false identity and infiltrating an underground cult. Marling, who so beautifully played the cult leader in Sound, stars as protagonist Sarah here, a woman elected by her private security firm to go undercover with the eponymous East, a small, politically far-left eco-terrorist collective. For the first act especially, The East plays out with striking similarity to Sound of My Voice, exploring thematic concepts about notions of trust, the fluid nature of identity, the role of outcasts and the social process of communal outcasting, personal morality versus those dictated by institutions, etc. Even if the science-fiction context of Sound has been swapped out for a contemporary political one, Sarah’s undercover journey hits all the same thematic notes, and constantly suffers by comparison, with execution that is flatter, sillier, and less effectively provocative than Batmanglij and Marling’s previous work.
Take, for instance, the scenes found in both films where the equivalent cults partake in various rituals that are off-putting at first, but viewers are ultimately meant to view as uplifting or alluring. The notion of communal living manifesting itself in ways outsiders find alien, but are emotionally enriching for those on the inside, worked perfectly for me in Sound, but falls consistently flat here. It’s not just that I have seen this all before – even though I do not understand Batmanglij and Marling’s impulse to cover ground they already tread so expertly – but that the writing does so much less to make me care about the people involved. With the exception of a character named Doc (Toby Kebbell), who is automatically made interesting by virtue of a fine performance and a clear personal connection to the East’s broader ideological (and narrative) purpose, time simply is not spent building the strange people we meet into real, three-dimensional characters. While Alexander Skarsgard does good work as the East’s leader, Benji, he cannot summon the same sort of spiritually gripping aura Marling herself captured as the cult preacher in Sound of My Voice, and the writing does him very few favors. No clear sense is created as to why people would follow this man, nor what it is about these individual people that attracts them to this lifestyle. As a result, when the East’s rituals or group habits are shown, the viewer has nothing to latch onto except absurdity, effectively killing an entire side of the film throughout.
Even if you have not seen Sound of My Voice – and I recognize most people have not – the execution is undeniably clunky, and the film is even more awkward and unappealing when working in its own specific context. Where Sound used notions of cults to explore extremely intimate, personal ideas of how time affects emotional wounds, The East is entirely political, with Batmanglij and Marling targeting the notion of wicked, unchecked corporations that hurt innocent people or destroy the environment to further their own financial gain. Or something like that – it is never entirely clear what the East actually wants as a collective. The extent of their power is completely baffling – at no point did I ever understand how less than a dozen hippies in a remote, run-down shack could execute plots this elaborate – and their ideology only grows increasingly inconsistent as the film moves along. We are introduced to the group as eco-terrorists, fighting back against those who harm the environment, but one of their main conflicts is with a company that put out a faulty pharmaceutical, and by the end they appear to be intrinsically anti-espionage. These are all related issues, certainly, but to be blunt, organizations need more intellectual cohesion than this if they want to be effective, and that includes terrorist groups. If the East cannot get its basic goals and ideas straight, then they are inherently uninteresting as a source of dramatic propulsion.
But that is beside the point – what really kills the film is its dry, overbearing social message. While I do not necessarily see eye-to-eye with the sheer extent of the politics promoted here – the East itself is a communist organization (in the utopian, theoretical Marxist sense, not the dictatorial Soviet one), and the film is about as fervently anti-capitalist as any in recent memory – I do agree wholeheartedly with the vast majority of points the film has to make. Yes, something has to be done about our culture’s abuse of the environment, and yes, obviously, the ability of corporations to act with near-total impunity in the United States is absolutely horrifying. But you either have your head out of the sand and understand the significance of these problems, or you are comfortable remaining ignorant and will never be swayed by a film like The East.
Either way, the film accomplishes nothing by giving large portions of itself over to ridiculously self-righteous lectures, or constantly contriving its story and reducing the overall focus just to hit another political checkpoint. The film could not be any more ham-fisted or overt in its presentation of theme and ideology, and it is impossible for any meaningful sense of dramatic tension or character development to be built when every other scene is built around broad political grandstanding. It is the exact same problem I have with Aaron Sorkin’s wretched Newsroom series on HBO – I may agree with nearly every inch of the politics, but I do not need a poorly conceived and awkwardly executed story to reinforce a shallow, over-simplified version of my own beliefs.
If the film operated with just a smidgeon of nuance, the possibility would at least exist for a more interested, multi-faceted discussion of the issues at hand. The point of an undercover operation narrative, after all, is to contrast the protagonist’s familiar, pre-existing lifestyle with new and different actions and ideas; in theory, this allows for an examination of what is good and bad about each form of living. But in The East, there is absolutely no meaningful reason for Sarah to have preexisting ties to society, because nothing she initially believes in or holds dear is ever allowed to be valid. Every single corporation, including her own, is uniformly evil, all forms of money and property are rejected wholesale, and even her real-world boyfriend is depicted as a bland, milquetoast victim of ‘the system.’ There is no reason whatsoever for her to prefer the world she came from, and very little evidence to reject the practices of the East, so her character arc – and, by extension, the thematic thrust of the film – is rendered immediately inevitable, the film around her dramatically inert.
The politics are so simple, omnipresent, and overbearing that most of the cast is shackled in unplayable parts. I always love seeing Ellen Page, but she is downright awful in this, less a character than a loud political sounding board. Nobody could make it work, and the same holds true on the other side of the aisle, where Patricia Clarkson only has notes of thinly-veiled villainy to play as Sarah’s cold-hearted boss. It is especially surprising to see Marling write herself such an empty role. She has done truly remarkable work in the past, but Sarah is a blank slate, and there is so little for her to hang a real performance on. We know nothing about Sarah’s preexisting life, beyond that she is mildly ambitious, so we have no contrasts to make once she joins up with the East. Even then, her only major arc is one of moral and ideological confliction, which can only go so far in adding compelling shadings to a character. Marling does what she can, but the part is little more than a cipher, and if nothing else about the film were to change, giving her an interesting, dynamic character to play – and for the story to center itself around – would dramatically improve things.
As low-budget dramas go, The East is technically proficient, and occasionally impressive, in every way, and I wouldn’t say the film ever sinks below the point of watchability. But its political and thematic goals are handled so poorly, with the actual dramatic weight of the piece disappearing as a result, that the film ultimately has very little to offer. I still think Batmanglij and Marling show promise as writers, and Batmanglij can be a sharp, perceptive director, but The East is a leaden and labored misfire, one undeserving of attention in a summer with so many other creatively successful pictures.