Zak Matmanglij and Brit Marling collaborated on last year’s excellent Sound of My Voice: a compelling take on cult psychology. The East follows similar beats, albeit swapping investigative journalism for spontaneous espionage. A Venn diagram would cover how much the two plots overlap. Really, the main difference is tonal than thematic: The East is substantially more mature and refined, and not always to the drama’s benefit.
Marling, the protagonist, is hired as a corporate spy to infiltrate a political activist group called The East. Once inside the organisation, she is slowly swayed by their anarchist movement seeking “eye for an eye” revenge on major businesses polluting the environment. Oh, and there’s a handsome gang leader (Alexander Skarsgard) whose smouldering eyes can supposedly change anyone’s conviction. (Although he doesn’t at any point turn to the camera and request a positive review.)
I wouldn’t call it propaganda (it definitely isn’t), but there are small traces of Chinatown with polluted rivers exposing a city’s decaying morals. The smart story is efficiently worked out by accomplished actors, right down to small roles for Ellen Page and Shiloh Fernandez. If anything, it’s too well packaged to convey the passion behind an underground movement.
Batmanglij’s second directorial feature is shaped by higher production values and tighter editing. The thriller’s glossy heartbeat (and ever-present “something exciting is happening” soundtrack”) will appeal to wider audiences. In doing so, it might disappoint fans of Marling’s Another Earth and the pair’s Sound of My Voice. Those two vaguely sci-fi dramas found borderline adolescent poetry in literally staring into space; that an unsettled twenty-something could escape to another planet or join a time-travelling gang. The East covers the same idea, perhaps with more vigour, but those vacant moments are rushed by adrenaline and conventional thriller beats.
I noticed a tendency to fill silences with any noise to heighten tension, whether a Christian radio station in the car, a pounding score, or even a droning hairdryer. Within a mainstream structure, metaphors become more heavy-handed (images of dogs on leashes; Marling describing herself as a dog on a leash; activists impersonating dogs; eating food from a bowl like a dog; I could go on). The eco-message is harder to take seriously, and has more potential as watchable escapism. After all, I was never bored.
The East is far from the powerful masterpiece it wants to be, but charmingly questions the concept of flickering identity; the roots of belief are more to do with personal experiences than one likes to admit. As a thriller with a brain and conscience, it can even find a dramatic climax in a spy eating an apple out of the bin.