The East — review and interview

The East is a cult like eco-terrorist group that likes to concoct payback schemes that give the pharmaceutical companies and factories a taste of their own medicine (sometimes literally). There are a number of things that make this an extremely rewarding experience at the movies.

It starts off showing an oil spill and a few animals that suffer. Hard to not side with the Ellen Page voice-over, showing The East pouring oil into the home of a CEO responsible.  It’s one of many visuals director Zal Batmanglij impresses me with.

I’m not surprised. The first movie Bat and Brit wrote together was Sound of My Voice, and it made my list of the 10 best last year.

One of the many intriguing things is how we start to side with a terrorist group. We see why they’re targeting each company, and they make a strong case each time.

Marling plays a Christian woman, in a relationship with a guy that might not be so fulfilling. She’s an overachiever that talks tough in her job interviewing with a high level private-sector security company. Patricia Clarkson (a welcome sight in any film) gives her the job. That job requires her to infiltrate The East and gather info.

Alexander Skarsgard (True Blood) is the leader of these anarchists. His huge frame and long, scraggly hair, are rather intimidating. Yet there are other times he appears soft and kind. Sometimes he’s talkative, other times aloof. We can see why she might fall for him (in real life he’s from Stockholm…so perhaps she had Stockholm Syndrome). I especially like a scene in which they play “spin the bottle” and how he subtly manipulates her.

The credit for all that goes to the actor, writers, and director.

We never got a chance to meet the other members of the cult in Sound of My Voice. That’s not the case here. We meet the group and they’re all rather interesting. Ellen Page is Izzy, the bossy and influential member of the group. There are some really powerful scenes with her.

Another compelling performance is from Toby Kebell as Doc. He has a look that is perfect, as well as the heartbreaking way he tells a story about how he got involved with the group.

Shiloh Fernandez plays a character that’s a bit hyper and hard to figure out. There’s a deaf girl in the group that Marling senses a kindness about. As a viewer, we’re really not sure about any of them. It’s why you’re sitting on the edge of your seat wondering which direction it will all go in.

It was also refreshing that Marling wasn’t just doing the same character from Sound of My Voice. Yes, there are similarities in the two films; even a similar scene that involves vomiting.

The subtle way Marling starts to question things about her life, or starts to seemingly have feelings for Skarsgard…it’s a compelling performance and a strong female character. It seems Hollywood only gives us strong women if they’re actresses like Angelina Jolie, shooting and blowing up things.

I often found myself wondering if in real life I would’ve ever sided with a group that does what The East is doing. Just as Marling slowly starts to sympathize with them (as her boss warned her against), we too see they have points. I’m guessing some viewers might have liked the movie more if they were clearly shown to be the bad guys, or if one of their jams (as they call their revenge/pranks) goes wrong and hurts an innocent person. It wasn’t necessary. We’re conflicted enough with our emotions that it makes it an captivating dilemma we’re left to ponder. That being said, I did think it was a flaw the way certain aspects of it were written. For example, I really find it hard to believe that a drug company could have side effects that leave so many people crippled, and not be shut down by the FDA or have a million lawsuits. Or that a company could dump chemicals into a river, clearly killing fish and putting arsenic into water that is killing children.

It’s smart that they made these companies so bad, it doesn’t quite blur the lines between who is good and who is bad. At least the activism, that becomes terrorism, makes sense. In the last movie I saw Brit Marling in (The Company You Keep), that was one of the big flaws. The activity of those 60s radicals never made much sense.

Halli Cauthery’s pulsating score adds some tension. The scores in Marling’s films have all been great (rent Another Earth if you never saw that indie sci-fi gem).

With the release of this movie, Marling certainly deserves to be on the A-list of actresses. I just hope she continues to write movies with director Zal Batmanglij.

This gets 4 stars out of 5.


I was thrilled I got to talk with Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij. They co-wrote this movie. He directed it, she starred in it. It was the same teaming that gave us the interesting Sound of My Voice last year, which made my Top 10 list. Marling also wrote and starred in Another Earth, which is a great sci-fi indie flick. If you rent it and aren’t happy, contact me and I’ll give you free movie tickets. I’m that confident you’ll like it. The East is their most mainstream film. Ridley and the late Tony Scott (Top Gun) produced, and they got Ellen Page (Juno) and Alexander Skarsgaard (True Blood), as well as Patricia Clarkson and of course, Marling in the lead role.

I cornered Zal first, and started peppering him with unanswered questions I had about Sound of my Voice. The movie left a lot of things unanswered and was to be part of a trilogy. He laughed at my attempts to get him to reveal parts of the story they purposely left vague, which was fine. What I wasn’t fine with, is the fact that he told me they probably wouldn’t finish the other two films. Boo!

When asked about the writing process with Marling he said, “We spend nine months working on the script, and it isn’t until six weeks before filming that we read the final draft.”

When I asked them if they fight over how a certain scene should be done, he said “Oh, we’ve only ever argued twice. A good story is a good story. You should be able to tell the entire movie and everyone would be glued to your every word.”

At this point Marling came and sat down. He filled her in on what we were talking about. She jokingly said something about them only fighting “over housekeeping.” Marling added “The story will begin with ideas, personal relationships, sometimes your deepest fears…all swirled in to the eye of the same storm.”

Since The East has a scene with this cult group dumpster diving, they talked about wanting to do that for a week with people to experience it. They ended up spending a whole summer with a group of 150 people that did this, and were able to prepare large meals after getting food thrown out by grocery stores. Talk about method acting!

I just couldn’t imagine a summer of dumpster diving and hanging out with people that did that.

Marling interjected something about it being more interesting having Zal to do it with and not just going out on her own on such an adventure.

When asked about such an impressive cast for the movie, Marling said “We just put word out there that we’re looking for actors that are willing to go on an adventure with us. Ellen Page got involved, and it was funny because when she showed up on the set, the first day of shooting involved her nude scene.”

Zal added, “It was like ‘Nice to meet everyone, now we have to film this nude scene.’ The next day we filmed the bathing scene. It wasn’t like you could ask for nipple covers or nudie underwear.”

I said “It worked in your favor that Skarsgaard looks…like a Charles Manson type with the long hair and beard early on. When he shaves and puts the suit on, you think…he cleans up well.”

They laughed. Zal later said that none of those actors were original thought of when they were writing, but “Now I can’t imagine anybody but Page as Izzy. She is Izzy.”

Marling talked about the cast, and mentioned Toby Kebell, who played “Doc.” I replied, “Wasn’t he Johnny Quid in RocknRolla? It’s such a different character.” She responded, “Yeah, what a great actor he is.”

I looked at Marling and said “As much as I loved your first two movies, I have to think it’s more thrilling for your mom to go to the theatres and see a movie with Robert Redford [The Company You Keep], or Arbitrage, where you’re playing Richard Gere’s daughter, and you have a scene yelling at him at a park bench.”

Marling: “Yeah. They really liked Another Earth and were happy with everything that happened at Sundance, but they’re still your parents. They worry about your future and how you’ll support yourself. So if I’m in a movie with Richard Gere, I think to them that’s more closely related to having stability in this industry.”

I said “As great as this cast is, Zal…you’re a great director. You mention the great performances of the cast, but you’re the one having Doc do that scene where he talks about his sister having adverse reactions to the medication. He’s choking up as he tells the story, but he’s not crying hysterically. It perfectly gets the audience to sympathize.”

Zal: “Well thanks, I appreciate that.”

I immediately think about the scene where Doc is manically playing the piano and say “I love that song. It’s so creepy and loud in that scene, it’s disturbing and fits perfectly.” Marling: “Isn’t that great? Zal’s brother wrote that.”

I mention another moment where Marling is making a secret phone call to report to her bosses. She’s up in a tree, and as Skarsgaard approaches, she jumps down, pretending to be going to the bathroom. He apologizes for surprising her, as she pulls up her pants and jumps on the back of his bike. He quickly glances up at the tree as they ride off. It’s almost as if he suspects something. I compliment Zal on those subtle touches he included. He laughed and said “Oh, you caught that? Thanks so much, yeah…I put that in there and…”

Of course it couldn’t all be a love fest. I had to tell them about a scene I found flawed. One involved Ellen Page and a conversation she has with her dad. She shows a bit of sympathy that I didn’t think her character would have. Zal smiled and said “Well, we didn’t have a lot of time to really shoot that scene. We had one night of filming on that, and the water was so cold.”

I replied, “So you didn’t have time to really contemplate what her dad should say at that moment, or film different takes?”

He quickly interjects, “No, no, not that. We had already written the scene. Even though we may have been rushed, it’s just…well…we felt we had him say what he needed to say.”

Marling added, “It is her father, so it’s not hard to see how she would’ve had sympathy for him at that moment.”

And as she said that, I realized she had a point. That scene did work better then I initially gave it credit for.

The other scene I mention having a problem with was late in the movie when Patricia Clarkson and Marling are in the office and have a bit of a disagreement. I felt that Clarkson should’ve been snottier, to illicit the response she got from Marlin. Zal was quick to explain, “No. That scene was actually a companion piece with the scene in which Marling fights with Skarsgaard early in the movie. When she’s trying to infiltrate the group, you don’t just go in and start agreeing with them on everything. That might not be believable. The fact that she says what she does about those groups, is enough to make him realize that she probably is a real person and not some undercover agent.”

He brought up a great point and I now agree, the scene he has later in the movie does work. I then realize…the movie is flawless.

Zal talked a bit about being influenced by the thrillers of the ‘70s. He mentions Parallax View, Klute, and All the Presidents Men. Since Marling just did The Company You Keep with Redford, she talks about how since that movie dealt with people in their 60s and 70s dealing with the protests in the past, I thought about how these two films could be companion pieces. Strange to think the better one is the indie picture and not the big budgeted, huge cast of Redford’s flick.

I told them I didn’t mind the similarities between Sound of my Voice and The East (both deal with going undercover to infiltrate a cult like group, both have similar scenes involving where to hide hidden cameras). Zal responded, “We wrote those movies at the same time, so…yeah, they are similar in some ways.”

Zal and Marling both went on and on about all the bad things corporations have done. Zal mentioned a story about a pharmaceutical company that had a drug that put one person in a wheelchair. Marling talked about the idea of getting revenge on companies, and how many directions they could’ve gone, saying “Imagine we were able to have bankers evicted from their houses, the way a lot of people were in this country.”

Zal really spent a lot of time talking about these big drug companies, and part of me wanted to tell him that he’s probably wrong on a lot of his theories about them. But hey – he’s a young filmmaker, and if his passion for causes like this help him pump out movies as good as this – that’s fine by me.

As the interview was wrapping up, I couldn’t help but corner Zal again and bug him to answer questions about Sound of my Voice. I asked, “Why did that woman check her hotel room to see if it was bugged? Who goes into a hotel room and checks everywhere to see if they’re being recorded?”

He smiled, probably still surprised and how fixated on that film. He enthusiastically explained, “A lot of spies and people like that do check their room for hidden devices. Since they’re used to doing survalance on people, it makes them feel more comfortable checking out their surroundings.”

I told him that me and a few other film critics discussed The Sound of My Voice in the lobby after the screening, and were there for over 30 minutes. That never happens after we watch films. I told him I was able to convince them that the girls father must have been molesting her, and that’s what you were trying to show when he brings her into his bet and injects her with a drug and has the computer on.

He smiled and said “Nope, you’re wrong again. That might be what I wanted you to think, but that’s not it.”

I pleaded with him to explain it all to me, but he refused. Even though he claims he’s not making the other two movies in that trilogy. It wasn’t until I was driving home that I realized – her dad must have been training the girl to fight the government in the future. Who knows. I went online to see if there were any discussions about it, and on the IMDB page, there were about 50 different theories as to what was happening in that scene.

Nothing like great movies that have you thinking about them years later.