I saw a lot of movies at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. I had planned in advance to catch Brit Marling's new film 'The East,' just from reading the synopsis before the festival started. I really liked Marling's 'Another Earth,' and was eager to see what she was going to do next. The idea of a domestic eco-terrorist group punishing the ultra-elite was somewhat interesting to me. Vigilante justice is something that, if done well, can usually make for a compelling story. Marling, and co-writer/director Zal Batmanglij, effectively create a well-paced thriller. Though, the ending doesn't really hold the weight of what came before.
Sarah (Marling) is an undercover agent working for a large security firm. She's been tasked with infiltrating a newly formed, and highly dangerous domestic terrorism group calling themselves The East. The group has threatened to punish big company CEOs that they deem guilty of running their businesses without thought of people or the environment. Some people might be rolling their eyes right now thinking, "Oh no, another preachy environmental movie." First off, why can't a movie be preachy? The filmmakers have personal biases, just like the rest of us, and are free to express them within their chosen medium. Second, 'The East' isn't as in-your-face preachy as you might think. At least not until the end, but that's another argument altogether.
After Sarah lies to her husband about her assignment, she heads into the American heartland hoping to track down the group. She hops trains, dumpster dives, and spends sleepless nights on the streets hoping to hook up with someone from the group, or someone that knows someone from the group. She meets up with a member of The East rather quickly, which is pretty unbelievable considering the needle-in-a-haystack way she was looking for the group, but it had to happen soon so the story could move along.
The leader of The East is Benji (Alexander Skarsgard). He's an enigmatic man who looks like Charles Manson, and acts like Gandhi. The super-secretive group reluctantly lets Sarah into their fold. Benji doesn't see her as a threat. He recruits her for one of their missions. Izzy (Ellen Page) isn't as accepting. She's there to give Sarah the stink-eye every time they cross paths.
What 'The East' does extremely well is build tension. We don't know if Sarah is going to get found out. We don't know if Sarah is going to start relating to the group and their causes. We don't know much, but the way Marling and Batmanglij have laid the story out has created an effective thriller on quite a few levels. Not to mention they've created an independent espionage thriller that looks like a big-budget Hollywood film. Never at any point do you feel like you're watching a low-budget festival film.
Decent performances pepper the picture. Skarsgard commendably switches his character's tone once he shaves off the beard. He goes from tree-hugging bearded hipster to dashing terrorist mastermind in a few seconds. Marling has the strong, yet vulnerable damsel in distress thing down. Page is effortlessly bitchy.
While the movie works its way through its story of corporate espionage with exactitude, the ending is rather disingenuous to the steam the screenplay had built up along the way. It's unbelievable at best. The prologue of snapshots taken of Sarah during the credits (to say what she's doing in them would be a spoiler) are, suffice it to say, completely ridiculous. The change in Sarah's character never really seems genuine, but the movie desperately wants us to think it is. That's the real problem with 'The East.' It spends all this time setting up this story, and this strong-willed character, and then sort of cops out with a mediocre implausible ending.
Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This 20th Century Fox release comes in a standard Blu-ray keepcase. It's a single-disc release on a 50GB Blu-ray. Inside of the case is an insert with a code for an UltraViolet Digital Copy.
Shot in HD, 'The East' has a very cinematic look to it. That's a big part of what adds to the overall expensive look of the film. Its 1080p presentation is presented with minimal flaws. The strengths certainly outshine any nitpicks one might have.
Detail is heavy and clear. Facial features are on full display during close-ups. Hair, freckles, smile lines, and pores are all visible. Skin tones run the gamut of shading, but all of them appear lifelike. Sometimes low-budget indie movies filmed on HD video have problems with creating cinematic depth. Flatness usually takes over, but that's not the case here. While a few instances of crushing creeps in here and there the overall presentation is positive. Blacks are sufficiently deep. Shadows are defined. Colors are bold, from the beautiful earthy tones of the hideout to the greenery of the surrounding forest.
Contrast and clarity are great here. There's nothing about this presentation that raises any red flags. Banding stays out of the conversation. Minimal crushing is really the only flaw that one could pick out. People who pick up this title should be impressed with the video.
'The East' features a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, which produces a low-key auditory affair. Yes, it's pretty understated, however, the mix does just about everything right. It's a clearly defined mix. Because of its close-quarter conversations, and lack of big-time action scenes, there aren't many instances where it can show off. Yet, fans of great audio presentations will be able to realize that 'The East' is giving a solid performance.
The rear channels are actually pretty active. While the members of The East live, eat, and play in the forest the rear channels pick up a lot of the forest's natural sounds. Birds chirp, leaves rustle, twigs snap, vegetation crunches under foot, and lake water splashes with naked hippie bathers. No matter how nuanced or small the ambient sound is the rear speaker still seem to pick it up easily.
Up front the dialogue is as clear as one could expect. A few tense moments feature some screeching tires and a few gunshots, which are handled professionally. Clarity is top-notch; fidelity also. The sub-woofer works hand-in-hand with the thudding soundtrack.
'The East' works well on a lot of levels. For an indie thriller, it's surprisingly tense and extremely well-developed. It eschews most Hollywood pratfalls creating a believable group of do-gooders working with their own brand of justice. The characters are interesting in their own right. It's easy to care about what's happening to them. Yet, in the end the movie takes the easy way out. The change in Sarah's character never feels all that believable, especially considering the lengths she goes through. However, if you're looking for a decently good thriller that you may not have heard of, 'The East' is a great option. There's much more here to like than there is to criticize. Worth a look.