The Movie Waffler New Release Review - The East | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - The East

A private intelligence agent infiltrates an eco-terrorist group.

Directed by: Zal Batmanglij
Starring: Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgard, Ellen Page, Toby Kebbell, Shiloh Fernandez, Patricia Clarkson, Julia Ormond

The East, an eco-terrorist group, have been waging a war against unscrupulous pharmaceutical companies. Sarah Moss (Marling) is an operative for a private intelligence firm who infiltrates the group, staying with them in their remote wooded hideaway. Once undercover, Sarah begins to sympathize with their cause, while being shocked at their increasingly dangerous and aggressive methods. When she develops feelings for the group's unofficial leader Benji (Skarsgard), Sarah finds herself torn between The East and her employers.
"If you live with white supremacists, you'll eventually sympathize with them", Sarah's boss tells her at one point of self-doubt. It's a knowing nod to Costa-Gavras' under-rated 1988 thriller 'Betrayed', in which Debra Winger plays an undercover FBI agent who falls for Tom Berenger's Klansman. Gavras' movie took the basic premise of Hitchcock's 'Notorious' but posed the question "What if Ingrid Bergman's spy fell in love with Claude Rains' Nazi?" Paul Verhoeven examined this in detail with his 2006 Dutch thriller, 'Black Book'. 'Donnie Brasco' took the premise and reworked it as a platonic bromance. It's a formula which has yielded overwhelmingly positive results, and 'The East' is no exception.
As director and co-writer with his leading lady Marling, Batmanglij has announced himself as a film-maker to keep an eye on. With the exception of an unnecessary sub-plot involving Sarah's disillusioned boyfriend, the script is watertight and structurally sound enough to be held up as an example in screenwriting classes. There's no expository dialogue and we're never left scratching our heads trying to piece things together, a rarity in modern American cinema. We get some brilliant moments of visual storytelling, best of all a scene involving a unique dinner ritual. A set-piece with poisoned champagne would have Hitchcock smiling and when Sarah has to perform impromptu surgery on a gunshot victim it's made all the more tense having earlier shown her make a mess of gutting a deer for its meat.
Marling caught my attention a couple of years ago in the impressive low budget sci-fi romance 'Another Earth' and she's appeared in thankless minor roles since. Here she proves a magnetic lead and acts the over-rated Ellen Page off the screen in their moments together. Swedish actor Skarsgard (son of Lars Von Trier regular Stellan) manages to make his character both creepy and sympathetic.
My one complaint is the amount of make-up these characters wear. They may have a gripe with the pharmaceutical firms but it seemingly doesn't extend to the cosmetics industry.

Eric Hillis