The East (2013) is probably the most recent film I’ll ever write about as part of this feature, but upon a second viewing a couple of days ago, I realized why it might be forgotten; it inhabits quite an interesting position in independent cinema, and poses a kind of conundrum as to what independent cinema is or should look like. It’s a film whose genre might have prevented it from reaching any kind of indie-infamy (the kind of fame that many festival darlings receive, for instance). After all, it is a thriller of sorts. But it is also carefully paced, intelligent, and driven by its humanity– thematically and literally, with characters you come to ache for– not to mention stylish and mostly devoid of worn-out cliches.
The reason I consider it “forgotten,” just to reiterate, hinges upon this strange dichotomy– not mainstream enough in its genre sensibilities for people to respond to it as a thriller and yet perhaps not indie enough to reach acclaim, despite it garnering fairly positive reviews at the time of its release. I saw it in theaters last summer, shortly before I decided to make this blog. And I loved it. Yet, somehow, I keep forgetting about it myself, or so was the case until my second viewing.
I have no way of guaranteeing whether this film will remain “forgotten” for me from this point forward, but I like to think that it won’t. Morally complex and endlessly compelling, this film– the second collaboration between director Zal Batmanglij and actress Brit Marling– somehow manages to be intellectual and emotional, entertaining and sophisticated, all at once. But, for whatever reason– and it could be as simple as my lack of film reviewing experience when I first saw it– it affected me more deeply this time. It tells the story of Jane, undercover as Sarah (and played by Marling), sent to live with, observe, and thus help take down a mysterious eco-terrorist group called The East. But, somewhat predictably, she gradually begins to learn from them, growing to maybe even respect their aims (although perhaps not their means). Alexander Skarsgard, Ellen Page and Patricia Clarkson co-star in what becomes a subtly intense and timely tale of morality and criminality.
One of my favorite moments of the film is actually its opening– a wonderfully edited, deeply chilling introduction to The East’s goals and approach– Ellen Page’s voiceover bridges both surveillance footage and harrowing images of animals covered in oil after a devastating spill. We learn that the group’s philosophy is that of “an eye for an eye,” as security cameras capture their awesomely disturbing retribution: thick globs of oil spilling through the vents of a CEO’s house. We see each of their subsequent “jams” as they are being planned (aka debated over) and brilliantly (if not also tumultuously) executed, and the viewer is often in a similar position to Sarah’s; we know their acts are illegal, but are they anymore unethical than the acts they are punishing? Who is really to blame for these crimes against our environment, and does revenge actually spread awareness? Is it actually effective to target the rich and powerful who don’t seem to care?
The film is a wake-up call of sorts to viewers though– if you want it to be one– that these injustices are real and that they matter, but it also questions what the best way of handling these problems might be. And this makes the film political but also purely thrilling, for all its wonderful, psychological complications. Skarsgard’s leader Benji is elusive, sometimes sympathetic and sometimes cold, but altogether, he is human. Sarah’s boss on the other hand, played by Clarkson, seems to be no better than the CEOs she works to protect. It is precisely these kinds of complications that make the film so engaging and difficult to grapple with on a deeper level– but it isn’t a film that requires you to think on that level necessarily to enjoy it.
On this deeper level though, these complications make the film a perfect thriller for our current climate– no pun intended– and that is why I don’t want it to be forgotten. It isn’t a perfect film, of course– in fact, many critics might say it falls flat in the final act with a conclusion that comes too abruptly and a shaky resolution that plays out in stills throughout the credits. But, The East does raise thematic questions through powerful, human lenses, and for that alone, I think it’s a success in whatever genre or label you’d prefer to place it in. It is a film that caters to the cerebral, the emotional, and the visual– it feels hip and intelligent and gripping, like I said. So for all it has going for it, it’s a shame that, by occupying such varied spaces and satisfying in so many ways, it is nearly impossible to categorize and thus really hard to remember. Again: a real shame for a film that should technically reach more people as a result of all it has to offer– entertaining and awakening us all, and achieving that rare balance with grace.