There’s somewhat of a lose-lose situation that must be addressed by a filmmaker when embarking on what can possibly be a political thriller. On one hand, by adding a political and social message beyond the use of subtext, you alienate bipartisan audiences as well as a large portion of the youth market that simply does not wants politics in their escapism. On the other hand, by merely sticking to the mechanisms of a thriller, many films become a predictable guessing game for audiences all-too-familiar with the mechanisms and plot devices of a film with no true basis in reality. However, The East, in theaters today from Fox Searchlight, breaks this lose-lose situation in a big way by not only adding a healthy does of psychological horror and dramatic tension to the thriller formula, but also by making a political and socially relevant film that takes almost entirely outside the political spectrum.
In concept, The East bares some similarities to director Zal Batmanglij’s previous film, the magnificent thriller Sound of my Voice, in terms that, yes, it deals with a devoted cult that means to work outside of the law, as well as the moral complexity that accompanies such devotion. Nevertheless, from the starting moments forward, The East reveals itself to be a beast in its own right, portraying the intimate, ecologically motivated crimes in a crude, invasive fashion that inspires dread within the audience, and builds a group that is so mysterious and selective that no character can truly be safe. But then again, no character truly deserves to be safe in this story, as the twists in turns within the life of independent investigative agent Sarah, played incredibly by co-writer Brit Marling, are a direct result of a web of lies she in turn created, which only tangles with the web of those who also mean to manipulate her. But the true brilliance of The East is that it’s cognizant that this behavior is that of reality and humanity, completely embedded in our innate nature to survive and conquer.
The East shows off this cognizance in the form of tonal shifts, stark photography and expansive world-building rarely seen in socio-political thrillers. Nightly forest rehearsals of future attacks and punishments for crimes against the ecosystem inspire most of the psychological horror that appears selectively throughout The East, peppered within believable moments of human connection within interpersonal bonding activities and paralleling romance stories that contrast genuine attraction to compelling desire. DP Roman Vasynov paints the picture with superb cinematography, implementing stationary shots outside of the compound while getting closer and more personal with handheld camerawork whenever Sarah is confronted by her mysterious counterparts. Vasynov also applies such a unique color pallete to alternating scenes that the picture itself does most of the world-building, let alone the characters the film specifically introduces just to establish how far and affecting the world of The East can become.
In addition, Batmanglij proves to be a force to be observed and potentially reckoned with, directing some of the years most fascinating and engaging performances from seriously established actors. Of course, Marling once again gives an astonishingly complex performance, so much so that you can barely recognize her when she performs out of her anarchist front and truly establishing an emotional connection to her world, even if it is built out of lies and double-truths. Ellen Page, Alexander Skarsgaard and Shiloh Fernandez approach their roles with a previously unseen vulnerability, each selling their motivations and functions within the radical group with finesse and sincerity. Patricia Clarkson also breaks type from previous matriarchal roles in order to provide the ambiguous villain of the piece, so concerned with her own bottom line as to disregard the safety and health of others but determinably still protective of Marling’s Sarah. Perhaps the shining light of the film at large is likely Toby Kebbell, who plays the medical examiner of the group whose role is instrumental in all of the groups attacks, but is so marred from his personal past experiences that his guilt and inadequacy within group measures encompasses the third act, dominating the screen whenever he appears. If I was a betting man, I’d say Kebbell and Marling give their finest on-screen performances here in The East, which is a claim I’m very hesitant to make considering their previous work.
The East, for all of it’s successes, isn’t free of criticism and flaws. The running time is of particular mention, as the pace of the film drags when establishing the humanizing practices of The East, some of which feel repetitive. Furthermore, the third act of the film feels incredibly rushed, and could have used a more suspenseful relationship between Skarsgaard and Marling, considering Sarah’s constantly varying intentions within the film. Lastly, for a film that carries many messages and wears different socio-political hats, there is more delving into the psychological justification of joining a radical cause rather than the reasonable alternatives to physical and mental harm on others.
However, by and large, The East is one of the most gripping, fascinating and easily accessible political thrillers to date. By pristinely offering a film that doesn’t label itself to any specific genre or storytelling mode, Batmanglij fashions a believable and relatable world that grows as much from childlike wonder as it does passionate social vitriol. The East is unpredictable and heart-pounding, and ultimately causes you to question not only your political affiliations but the basis of your relationships in general. There is no definitive message to be offered by the end of The East, but if anything, there is a dormant humanity under the films radical frame. The East may be entertainment in it’s most realized, hypnotic form, but with any form of hypnotism, it intends to leave thoughts and challenges in your head, and to that extent, it defies expectations.
– By Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine, as well as a contributing writer for Diabolique Magazine and Fangoria Magazine. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he recieved an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on several screenplays spanning over different genres and subject matter, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.