“The East” — Edgy Indie Thriller, Or Undercover Studio Product?

Posted: July 6, 2013 in movies
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Maybe you’ve been hearing about this little indie/arthouse political thriller that folks are talking about called The East. It’s about this quasi-anarchist/ quasi-“eco-terrorist” quasi-“cell” that gets infiltrated by a  female plainclothes “private security” (let’s be honest, that just a nicer term for mercenary) operative who finds her loyalties, predictably, being torn the more deeply she gets involved involved with her ostensible “targets.”

And hey — who can blame her? Big corporations suck. Sorry, that’s just not up for debate around here. They’re greedy. They’re evil. They’re sociopathic. They have no conscience. They’re assholes.

There’s just one thing that seems kinda, well, incongruous about this flick : it is, in fact,  the product of a major Hollywood studio  (and the most viciously right-wing one of the bunch — namely Fox — at that), the late Tony Scott and his brother, Ridley (not exactly strangers to the big-budget blockbuster machine themselves) are credited as producers, and the ending is a total cop-out that hews to the tried-and-untrue axiom that these dastardly corporate conglomerates can be changed without resorting to confrontational direct action. Oops, that’s three things. Sorry.

Come on, though, let’s get real — we’ve  been trying the whole “work within the system” approach for some time now, and I got news for you — it ain’t working. These oil companies, chemical companies, pharmaceutical manufacturers, and other targets of the titular “terrorist collective” known as The East (a monicker whose significance is never explained) are as firmly ensconced in the economic driver’s seat as ever. The actions that The East are shown to undertake probably would, in fact, work — and at the risk of my own ass let me say that anyone willing to mimic them in reality would have my full and unwavering support — but when our erstwhile heroine, one Sarah Moss (that’s her “operational” name, at any rate) decides to “go rogue” from both her employers and her new-found “anarcho-culture-jammer” friends, she maps out a tepid “let’s embarrass and expose these guys in order to get them to reform” course of action that ultimately plays into these hyper-capitalistic bastards’ hands by, at the very least, letting them live.

In other words, this is exactly the kind of “message” that a big studio like Fox wants to impart to what remains of the supposed “radical” community. We’re not that bad — just force us to do the right thing, and we will. Why, you can even leave us in charge of our companies — just put enough consumer pressure on us and we’ll reform, we promise.

Can you smell the bullshit from a mile away? ‘Cuz I sure can.

But wait, you say — this film only has a $6.5 million budget, it was co-written by its star, Brit Marling, and its “indie” wunderkind director, Zal Batmanglij, and the “name” supporting players in the cast — folks like Ellen Page, Patricia Clarkson, and Julia Ormond — took less than their usual going rate for the” honor” of participating in this “labor of love.”

Why, the de facto “leader” of The East is even played by “certified cool” up-and-comer Alexander Skarsgard. Therefore this movie must be “legit,” right?

Tell ya what — you just go on thinking that if it helps you sleep easier at night.

Besides, truth be told,  I’m not even really here to completely dissuade you from seeing this film (huh? Where’d that come from?) — it’s definitely a well-paced, stylish, competently-executed, occasionally-thought-provoking piece of cinema. But it’s way too polished to be a non-studio product, and ultimately way too gutless. I guess it would have struck a more resonant cord with me if my conscience were  conflicted about what these guys n’ gals were doing to bring down corporate America (and that type of moral ambiguity is clearly what the film-makers are aiming for), but since it’s not, a lot of the supposed “thematic tension” they’re going for fell flat with this viewer.

Here’s what I think probably happened, no matter what the officially-sanctioned behind-the-scenes scuttlebutt for this film may say — Scott Free productions shelled out a modest amount of cash for Batmanglij and Marling to make their little “socio-political thriller,” got Fox on board to provide further financing and, ultimately, distribution, Fox released it under their “Searchlight” label to give it some “street cred,” and yet another great celluloid hustle was born.

A well-done, entertaining, even occasionally involving hustle, but a hustle nevertheless. It might very well be worth your time and money to see The East — after all, most of the crap playing in theaters right now is a whole lot worse — but you should definitely go in with your eyes open, and realize that you’re being played.

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