Dir: Zal Batmanglij | Genre: Thriller | Country: USA | 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 reteams with Batmanglij here and the story is similar to their previous collaboration - The East also chronicles a character who infiltrates a shadowy cult but gets lost in the battle between the right and the wrong.
What makes The East a fascinating watch is how thematically relevant the story feels, despite its many implausible twists and turns. Batmanglij, apart from having an awesome name is good at making a tall story 'realistic'. 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 nasty shit happening the formation of an Environmental Terrorist Group like The East doesn’t sound so far-fetched. There already are people like Julian Assange, Edward Snowden and the Hacktivist group Anonymous, and they’re not much different from The East.
While making the story germane is a coup 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 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 villainous corporations sounds silly on paper. This is a tough role to pull off in a serious film and Marling somehow manages to make her transformation believable. The film even directly connects with Sound of my voice as an Easter egg, you’d need to watch both the films to appreciate Batmanglij’s cheeky indulgence.
Alexander Skarsgard plays the leader of The East – he isn’t as hypnotic as John Hawkes in Martha Marcy May Marlene (a much superior cult based thriller) yet 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 ‘civilized’ you are as someone working in a scummy corporate world. We look down upon cults due to their bizarre sexualized practices, yet we are content to trample upon colleagues to climb the success ladder, treat women like objects, knowingly amount to the genocide of thousands of human guinea pigs and still consider ourselves as noble and ‘cultured’.
(First published in DNA)