Film: The East
Dir: Zal Batmanglij
Year : 2013
What if there was a secret group of individuals who formed a cult and had access to the dirtiest secrets of the biggest corporations in the world? What if their intention was to bring down pharmaceutical companies that knowingly kill millions of people with their drugs’ side effects? Would you side with the cult for their quasi noble albeit vengeful intentions, or would you expose the cult and let the law take its course?
This impossible choice is faced by the protagonist of The East, a small independently produced and criminally overlooked film that is one of the most interesting thrillers of the year. The film was written by and stars Brit Marling, the gorgeous talented young woman who hit the indie circuit three years ago with the brilliant sci-fi Another Earth and Zal Batmanglij’s cult thriller Sound of My Voice. She re-teams with Batmanglij here and the story is thematically similar to their previous collaboration. The East also chronicles a character who infiltrates a shadowy cult, also called The East, but gets lost in the battle between right and wrong.
What makes The East an immediately fascinating watch is how real and relevant the story feels, despite its many implausible twists and turns. Batmanglij, apart from having an awesome name, is good at making his story relatable. He does this by dabbling in ‘real world’ scandals like corporations knowingly draining toxic effluents in rivers when no one’s looking, or pharma companies treating humans as guinea pigs, or large conglomerates indulging in price fixing.
This sort of stuff doesn’t just exist in pulp novels, it happens every day in your town. In fact, director Steven Soderbergh, his frequent writer Scott Burns and Tony Gilroy who wrote the Bourne films have stated over and over again that pharma-based scandals are an immediate threat to the world and are grossly overlooked by the media and investigators. With all this happening, the formation of an environmental terrorist group like The East doesn’t sound so far-fetched. There are already people like Edward Snowden and the Anonymous Hacktivist group, and they’re not very different from The East.
While making the story germane is a feat in itself, The East would’ve looked silly had it been handled by a less talented filmmaker and cast. Marling plays a high level private investigator who penetrates the cult to gather evidence to hand them over to the cops, but finds herself falling for the charms of the cult’s leader.
She is supposed to be a former FBI agent, and the scenario of such a strong, intelligent, happily married person falling for a charismatic cult leader and changing her stance after seeing the ‘wrongs of the villainous corporations’ sounds silly on paper. This is a difficult role to pull off and Marling somehow manages to make her transformation believable.
Alexander Skarsgard plays the leader of The East — he isn’t as mesmerising and hypnotic as John Hawkes in Martha Marcy May Marlene (a much superior cult based thriller) but still manages to have a strong screen presence. There’s even Ellen Page in a small but important role, but the film’s best attribute is the way it makes you ponder over the righteousness of an anarchist cult.
Films like Martha Marcy May Marlene give a downright negative view of ochlocracy by focusing on the weird customs of a cult, but The East makes you wonder how ‘decent’ and ‘civilised’ you are as a person working in a scummy corporate world. We look down upon cults due to their bizarre sexualised practices, yet we are content to trample upon colleagues to climb the success ladder, treat women like objects, directly amount to the genocide of thousands of human guinea pigs and still consider ourselves as noble and ‘cultured’.
Mihir Fadnavis is a film critic and certified movie geek who has consumed more movies than meals.
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