Sundance '13: Brit Marling & Zal Batmanglij's 'The East' is a Thrill
by Alex Billington
January 23, 2013
When it comes to modern thrillers, the tone, pacing and production values of the film are as important as the characters and story. At least for me. The second feature from up-and-coming director Zal Batmanglij, of Sound of My Voice from 2011, premiered at Sundance this year. Titled The East, it's an eco-terrorist thriller about a rogue collective that plans and orchestrates attacks against the corporations destroying the environment of this beautiful world. I wasn't particular a big fan of Sound of my Voice, but was surprised and thoroughly rocked to the core by The East, a vast improvement for Zal and outstanding film of its own.
Despite easy-to-make cult comparisons to Sound of My Voice, Zal's The East is nothing like that film and doesn't have any similarities at all. The East is a much more thrilling tale of corporate greed and destruction focused on a collective of young, idealistic individuals trying to make a difference. We follow Brit Marling, playing an operative for an elite private intelligence firm, assigned to infiltrate this collective/group/cult and stop them, but of course, she gets in too deep once she becomes friends with its members. But there are a few good twists and it's the kind of plot that keeps you wondering what the heck is going to happen next.
There's not much I can criticize about The East, except for a few minor comical details like the overuse of the word "jam" (there's an unintentionally funny moment where the back and forth dialogue ends with "it's our jam!"). The direction in particular is astounding, Zal certainly knows what he's doing with his cast, but also with the story, with the film itself and every twist and turn and plot point that keeps the momentum going. It begins and never lets up, an exquisitely crafted mystery that kept me tense throughout. It ends solidly, but leaves more for us to consider as the credits roll, another testament to Zal's grasp on this story.
Beyond the direction and consistent thrills it provides, the cast is something to behold. Zal has lined up one of my favorite groups of up-and-comers in a while: Toby Kebbell (seen in RocknRolla, Prince of Persia), Alexander Skarsgård (seen in Melancholia, Battleship, Straw Dogs), Shiloh Fernandez (seen in Deadgirl, Skateland), Julia Ormond and Aldis Hodge (seen on "Leverage"). Each plays an important role in the bigger picture and brings a fervent spirit to their character. Brit Marling takes the story by its reigns and gives a commanding lead performance, better than I've seen her before, including in Zal's Sound of My Voice. All of them together with Ellen Page and Patricia Clarkson make the film as strong as it is.
In all honesty, I wasn't expecting to like this much at first, but was ecstatic to discover a fantastic thriller that I'm looking forward to revisiting. As only the second film by Zal Batmanglij, it's an impressive step up.
Alex's Sundance Rating: 8 out of 10