The East

We are born with a chance

Ellen Page/Brit MarlingThis is the moment whereupon we can all say, in reference to Brit Marling, “We knew her when.”  The East is the third film she’s both written and starred in, and to call it “ambitious” would be similar to calling the collected works of Franz Kafka a “decent read.”

The East, to me, felt a bit like a reunion with old friends.  It’s been ages since I’ve seen Ellen Page in a prominent and layered role (and not just because I don’t care about Woody Allen), and Marling’s Another Earth seems like it happened years ago.  Actually, it did.  The film is Marling and director Zal Batmanglij’s second stab at a story centered around a cult-like group, but this one doesn’t rely on concept and a “twist” ending.

The duo’s newest effort follows Sarah Moss (Marling), the cover name for Jane, an agent working for a private intelligence firm connected to the FBI.  Sarah is contracted by her tight-fisted employer, Sharon (Patricia Clarkson) to infiltrate The East, an “eco-terrorist” group, who have promised to “jam” several multi-billion-dollar corporations in order to make them see the error of their ways.  But the people Sarah encounters are not quite the evil Emmanuel Goldstein boogeymen the popular media paint them as.  Led to The East’s HQ by Luca (Shiloh Fernandez), Sarah meets the entire group, all of whom use pseudonyms: Izzy (Ellen Page) is aggressive, distrustful, and extremely passionate about her work; Benji (Alexander Skarsgård) is gently manipulative and keeps the hair and beard of an anarchist Jesus; Eve (Hillary Baack) is deaf and immediately bonds with Sarah due to their shared skill of sign language, but as far as her role in the group, doesn’t get to do much other than act as sentinel; the aptly-named Doc (Toby Kebbell) is a former med student who has seizures due to side effects of an anti-malaria drug he prescribed to himself and his sister; Thumbs (Aldis Hodge) is a hardhead; Tess (Danielle Macdonald) is an incomparable hacker and someone you’d want as your best friend.  Sarah spends three weeks with the group and practices “Freeganism,” known in some circles as “dumpster-diving,” which entails eating nothing but food discarded by others in order to illustrate the wastefulness of modern society.  The practice involves every aspect of living on the grit of society and ensuring that everything is free – people share services, ideas, food, and so on.

There’s a formula for films like this.  That is to say, films that involve a cop or fed infiltrating a group of criminals in order to take them down.  You know the formula; it’s mostly the same as the one used for heist films.  Usually, the mole ends up getting made at a critical moment after bonding with a certain member of the group (see Reservoir Dogs, City On Fire, The Departed, etc.).  Whether or not the infiltrator switches sides is variable.  Here, yes, the members of The East abide by the tropey “each member has a special skill” convention, but in this case – a moneyless group living in a torched hotel building and working with a skeleton crew – it makes sense that the essential personnel would be varied.  Also, yes, of course Sarah switches sides, because exploiting deadly capitalist practices, including a poisoned water supply that results in brain tumors in children, is what good guys do.  However, Brit Marling wrote this, so it’s not as simple as all that.

Sarah’s interactions with the group are organic from the outset, and the wonder of it is that we don’t know how genuine she’s being in her spoken dialogue, since she’s undercover.  Content with revealing the true identities of The East to her boss, who has every intention of locking them up forever, Sarah still seems to truly care about them as individuals, which makes her both the perfect agent and a dangerous liability.  She immediately convinces Eve to leave the group, and she does it at a moment when she really doesn’t have to – she could sell the latter out just like she plans to do with the rest.  But no, not this hero.  She knows the group is using Eve, and the spot Eve leaves would be a major empty hole in the movie if it weren’t for the fact that Sarah fills her role.  Because she’s human before she is the embodiment of her work, Sarah sympathizes with the situation of Doc, who can barely perform his work anymore due to the severity of his Parkinsons-like symptoms, and even tries to befriend Izzy, who immediately wants her to leave.  The group fashions Benji as its leader despite his insistence that everyone has an equal say – remember how “long cons” work?  The conman involves the victim by making them think the entire thing was their idea?  Yeah.

One of the film’s many centerpieces is a “spin-the-bottle” scene, which according to Marling and Batmanglij, was entirely improvised.  During this, the collective, including Sarah, spin a bottle and ask the chosen person for some kind of favor that will allow the two to know each other better.  For example, “Can I shake your hand?”  The other can answer, “Yes,” or alternatively, suggest something lesser but related, such as “How about we high-five instead?”  The scene, which features a kiss between Brit Marling and Ellen Page, achieves a true openness and intimacy barely ever seen onscreen.  Moreover, none of this is done for titillation (an idea reinforced by the fact that Izzy’s suggestion that she and Sarah kiss was apparently ad-libbed).  Men also kiss men in the scene, and Skarsgård’s character does some other interesting things.  In a lesser film, this scene and another wherein the characters bathe each other in a lake, may have become one big orgy.  But it is this very restraint that makes the scenes intimate, so that when Sarah removes a browning apple from a garbage can and devours it in front of her boss, it’s real.  She’s been there.  We know it, we’ve seen it, and we’ve been there with her.

The East is a movie about saying “Enough.”  It was filmed concurrently with the BP oil spill and the dawn of Occupy.  It deals with the world as we know it now, wherein the fear of impermanence causes us to consume, throw away, and forget in excess.  It’s about omnisexuality and openness.  It’s about how quickly we’ve absorbed into our very beings things that we not only don’t need, but that have only been around for a few years (YouTube, iPhones, the current DNA of social media, and so on).  It encourages activism, but opposes militancy, and never presumes to tell anyone what to do.  This isn’t to say that it doesn’t hold its moral ground – there’s a very clear anti-apathy theme – but instead of taking a “side,” it brashly suggests that we are all on the side of humanity and Earth, that all of us should take a look at the injustices going on – the atrocities of billion-dollar companies and conglomerates, the gross unbalance of accountability, the mistreatment of wildlife, the masses’ acceptance of a world in which we worship pictures of photoshopped women and men – and be disheartened by the status quo.

Go in cold.

The East (2013); written by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij; directed by Zal Batmanglij; starring Brit Marling, Ellen Page, Alexander Skarsgård, and Toby Kebbell.

Sound of My Voice

Why do I like being lame?

Zal Batmanglij’s Sound of My Voice wastes no time in presenting a concept, three potentially combustible personalities, and a dozen questions, the most important of which is this: is Maggie telling the truth?  It’s the most important question because if she’s not, the lion’s share of this film’s narrative is for nothing.  This is a problem that generates a compelling motivation, or “viewing style” if you will, for an audience: we’re rooting for the character presented at the outset as a charlatan.  Why?  Partly because she radiates honesty, partly because we don’t really care about the dual protagonists’ motivations, and thirdly because we don’t want any of the characters, even the ones we don’t like, to have wasted their time.

The story places us in the presence of Lorna (Nicole Vicius) and her boyfriend, Peter (Christopher Denham), late-twenties layabouts seeking to make a living in L.A. by doing what everyone who goes to L.A. hopes to make a living doing: making films.  Their film is a documentary about cults, and they’ve somehow come across a group led by a mysterious, white-veiled basement dweller named Maggie (Brit Marling), who claims to have traveled back in time from 2054, where a civil war is tearing the world apart, and she has returned in order to “save” the people she loves.  How will she accomplish this?  We don’t know.  What does her plan have to do with this group of strangers who worship her?  She doesn’t say.  All we know is that Peter and Lorna think of the whole thing as a joke, and are willing to play along with Maggie’s rituals until they can find a way to expose her on film.  They infiltrate the group, pretending to be members, not knowing what they’re getting themselves into.

Of course, as Peter and Lorna attend several months’ worth of group rituals, the things Maggie says begin to make more sense, even to the arrogant and skeptical Peter, who is emotionally gutted by Maggie in one of the film’s most effective dramatic scenes.  “She knew things about you,” Lorna says to him over a meal the next day.  Peter stone-facedly denies this and says he was just making things up, but we know he wasn’t, which presents two solid conflicts: Lorna, after a three-year relationship with Peter, doesn’t know much about him and is jealous that the beautiful and enigmatic Maggie has this effect on him; and Peter, who may have developed a fixation on Maggie similar to that of the other followers (of whom he made a terrible mockery before), hasn’t bothered with his documentary work in weeks.

During the day, Peter teaches at an all-girls elementary school, which he considers sedentary and a waste of his twenties.  The film lends particular focus to a certain student, Abigail (Avery Pohl), an eight year-old who shows symptoms of Asperger’s (indicated by her insistence on never removing her red hat and the fact that she spends the entirety of her free time building with black Lego pieces).  We know she has some connection to Maggie before it’s even revealed, but the trouble that brews is well worth the wait: Maggie, still claiming to be from the future, believes Abigail to be her mother, and “needs” to meet with her.  The guy who can make this happen?  Peter, the one teacher Abigail tolerates.  Peter’s decision whether to do this pops the bubble that has expanded between Lorna and himself throughout the story, and the payoff delivered when Maggie and Abigail finally meet rivals most films from this year – but what do you expect?  Sound of My Voice was co-scripted by Brit Marling, who is absolutely convincing as Maggie, and who wrote the best screenplay of 2011, Another Earth.  Her next film, also in tandem with Batmanglij, is The East, starring Brit alongside Ellen Page.

For better or worse, the film deprives us of the denouement that most films would drag us through.  This works if you don’t mind not having every single question answered – what will the nature of Lorna and Peter’s relationship be in the future?  What do the feds looking for Maggie think she wants the child for?  Can they legally convict her of anything?  The film makes no absolute statements about any of it (exemplified by Peter’s final line: “I don’t know”), but I think we know in our hearts, just as we do when watching election coverage, who’s telling the truth and who is perpetually full of it.

Sound of My Voice (2012); written by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij; directed by Zal Batmanglij; starring Brit Marling, Christopher Denham, and Nicole Vicius.

  • Calendar

    • January 2022
      M T W T F S S
       12
      3456789
      10111213141516
      17181920212223
      24252627282930
      31  
  • Search