Just because it’s rather difficult to stumble upon something relatively fresh during the summer season, every little indie release I can find, is pretty much a blessing. Well, I kind of missed “Mud”, but I have only myself to blame and I’ll be sure to make up for it once it hits Blu-Ray. Other than that, I try to do my best in that regard, because – honestly – while I enjoy good entertainment, I’ve been craving something different to your bog standard superhero flick, which have been over-abundant in cinemas lately, to say the least.
Therefore, hoping to satiate my thirst for good cinema, I ventured valiantly to see “The East” and even though it wasn’t a bad film per se, it was miles away from what I expected. I don’t know if I should attribute my mild disappointment with this film to my own expectations that might have been of the high variety, but nonetheless, I think I had something different in mind when contemplating the idea of watching “The East”.
So what is it all about? Well, I think it’s safe to say we all know who anarchists are, as we are being periodically reminded of their existence whenever the next G8 summit comes along, or something of that nature. However, while we might be able to put a name on that particular group of people, the level of our knowledge of the phenomenon of anarchism as a political movement that we collectively present, remains shamefully low. Well then, who are these hooded masked individuals throwing bricks at McDonald’s windows, squatting in abandoned houses and raiding our bins at night, you might ask?
The answer is simple – they are people just like you and me. The only thing that separates the majority of the population from these mainly young rebellious romantics is the fact they prefer to a priori reject all the social standards we find crucial to our existence. You might call them hippies who don’t know any better than to smoke pot and hitchhike through Europe, but they are so much more than that; reducing their ideologies to mundane hedonism is just unfair.
We all see, how our world is far from perfect, ruled by ruthless people bent on improving their own standard of living with utter disregard to anybody who might find themselves in their way. How many of us have noticed that we are all slaves to the way of lives we lead, with our smartphones, Internet, facebook, careers, mortgages and the desire to own more and more things in life? We all have, but we don’t find the courage to shed it all and start over, while those guys do. These ‘anarchists’ on principle reject everything that our culture stands for. Some would maybe even call them hypocrites, because while they claim to have separated themselves from our rotten and evil society, it’s not the chaos and anarchy they crave. They form their own groups and collectives, as it is natural for human beings to stick together, and try to live in harmony with the natural world that we so easily abuse and destroy. They just prefer to live their own way and maybe make a point of it for the rest of to notice. For some of them, however, it is not enough to simply remove themselves from the world. Some believe that it is their mission to ‘make things right’, revolt against the consumerist way of life and retaliate against the evil corporations who so gleefully destroy our world, enslave its people and abuse everything and everyone that cannot fend for themselves.
And “The East” is a film about just that kind of anarchists… Or I should say that it would like to be. In it we meet Jane (Brit Marling that you might remember from “Another Earth”), a young and aspiring recruit to a private intelligence company. She receives an assignment to locate and infiltrate a notorious group of eco-terrorists that call themselves ‘The East’, gather information on their structure and plans, and finally bring them down, so that the corporations ‘The East’ targets in their attacks, can resume whatever it is they’re doing.
Quite expectedly, after a bit of travelling Jane succeeds in finding ‘The East’ who squat in a ruined house somewhere in the middle of nowhere. She assumes a fake identity and attempts to gain their trust. It turns out that those ‘terrorists’ are pretty much normal people who live on the outside of everything, share everything with one another, live off of the food they find in bins, and are otherwise very interesting and intelligent human beings with ideals, feelings and thoughts. Plus, they do also plan and execute vicious attacks against petrochemical and/or pharmaceutical corporations, in which Jane needs to become complicit in order to gain the trust of the group’s leaders – Izzy (Ellen Page) and Benji (Alexander Skarsgard). The longer Jane stays with ‘The East’, the more she finds it difficult to go back to the so-called normality and report to her superiors, because apart from the terrorist activity, she finds such way of life surprisingly tolerable.
I couldn’t help but feel that “The East” suffers from a mild case of split personality, because at times I had no idea whether I was watching a stunningly shot indie film that attempts to comment on the phenomenon of anarchism and how twisted our perception of it really is, or maybe a spy thriller with twists and turns and loads of suspense. In the end, “The East” was neither…
The fact Zal Batmanglij (direction and screenplay) and Brit Marling (screenplay and the lead role) couldn’t make up their mind about what this film is going to be, simply destroyed whatever message it could theoretically carry with it. I think it is expected of independent film-makers to make bold statements and touch upon uncomfortable subject in order to instigate a mature discussion, but here all the important bits felt brushed over and shallow; instead of an in-depth look at the idea of anarchism as a supposed alternative to what we are doing right now, I felt I was taken to a zoo with hippies in it. It might look cool to show, how ‘The East’ is having dinners, or how they bond by playing games, or how they perform their meticulous rituals here and there, but it made the whole concept look gimmicky, devoid of any substance (and I would certainly hope the ideology behind it is much deeper than that). Also, I understand that political implications of whatever ‘The East’ would be doing in real life would be far greater and more complex than just a string of personal vendettas, empty slogans and misinformed pre-conceived judgments about the way pharmaceutical industry works, but the film doesn’t show it at all. Why? Because it needs to keep the pace up so that the suspense doesn’t wear off.
After all, “The East” wants to be a thriller as well. In order to achieve that, certain leaps of logic are made, certain characters completely ignored, while others reduced to auxiliary roles in the plot development. It’s difficult to elaborate on that without venturing too deep into spoiler territory, but the whole espionage-thriller-thing in “The East” looks like it was written by an inexperienced writer (and it was). The choices the characters make are laughable, Patricia Clarkson’s character (she’s the equivalent of M in James Bond films) is more of a comic book caricature than a real human, the motives are shallow, and it all makes the whole thing look like a giant cliché that cannot be saved by any amount of superb acting.
“The East” can be seen as evidence that mathematics doesn’t work very well in film sometimes – one and one does not always give two. You can’t have an independent political film and a stunning thriller at the same time. Well, you can, but it takes more experience than just pure talent to accomplish such a feat. In return, “The East” is exactly half of whatever it set out to be and the only reason I somewhat enjoyed it had nothing to do with the actual plot. I liked the film for the acting performances it carried and the brief albeit shallow look at the culture of squatters. I probably would have liked it more if it had taken the subject more seriously, I believe, or if I hadn’t known what I know about the world now. If I were ten years younger, I might look at it in a different way, but then again, someone who looks at “The East” as a source of knowledge about the world, can be easily tricked by the shallow propaganda this film has substituted instead of genuine information. While it does convey the sense of ambiguity, it is more contained to the action/thriller layer of the film (for the dramatic effect) and not to the political commentary it needs to make.
You shouldn’t organize political rallies in a circus tent, because it is neither the time nor the place for it. In the end, you won’t get your point across and whoever expected entertainment is going to leave the show pissed off…