Blu-ray Review: The East

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Nothing really works in The East, a strange little thriller that tips perilously close to advocating eco-terrorism. Ridley and Tony Scott served as producers and I can’t fathom what they saw in this material. Benji (Alexander Skarsgård) is the leader of The East, a small but passionate group of rabid environmentalists who execute covert anti-corporate operations, referred to as “jams.” They find, for example, a pharmaceutical company that’s issuing a new antibiotic with potentially harmful side effects, crash a big dinner party held by the CEO, and secretly dose everyone present with their own product.

Sarah (Brit Marling) infiltrates The East after landing a job with a private intelligence agency. Her mission is to uncover everything she can about the group’s plans, passing the intel along to boss Sharon (Patricia Clarkson). Sharon has a long list of clients that pay her to make sure their companies are spared from acts of terrorism. The longer she stays under cover, the more sympathy Sarah seems to develop for The East’s cause. She’s not always down with the potential for people to literally die or become sick from the group’s sabotage, but she comes to agree with the “freegan,” anti-consumerist lifestyle (which essentially amounts to living in squalor and eating crap out of garbage cans).

East Brit Marling (187x280).jpgThe East, written by star Marling and Zal Batmanglij (the latter also directed), is manipulative by nature; a slice of socialist-oriented propaganda. The “jams” undertaken by The East are terribly one-sided. Of course we abhor their targets, which blithely poison the public for profit. But outright anarchic, eye-for-an-eye revenge plots aren’t the answer. It’s well made and generally quite entertaining, with strong performances by Marling, Skarsgård, and (as an East member with very personal reasons for participating) Ellen Page. Patricia Clarkson does what she can, but is stranded in an underwritten role. We needed to see more about Sharon’s firm, Hiller Brood, and her perspective on Sarah’s gradually growing attachments to The East.

Technically, Fox’s Blu-ray presentation is solid. Much of the modestly budgeted, digitally-shot film takes place at night and the transfer handles the darkness well. Roman Vasyanov’s cinematography favors a subdued color palette and plain-Jane look, so there’s not much in the way of striking visuals to show off. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is, if anything, even less assuming though equally strong. It’s a front-centric affair with a strong focus on dialogue. As such, it works just fine without being noteworthy.

The special features aren’t extensive, but they are quite fascinating. First of all, don’t bother with the deleted scenes. They run for just under five minutes, which includes about a minute and a half of score over a blank screen, following a barely-different alternate ending. The section labeled “Theatrical Behind the Scenes” contains a series of six mini-featurettes that lay the filmmaker’s ideals bare. It appears that writers Marling and Batmanglij honestly believed they were presenting a valid method of fighting the powers that be. In fact, Marling practically reenacts a scene from the movie where here character defends the habit of eating from trash cans.

East Sarsgaard (380x253).jpgTaken at face value, The East is a relatively suspenseful thriller. A slightly deeper look reveals a politically-confused muckraker, one that pulls its punches ever so slightly by showing the sometimes dire consequences facing The East. But the film’s subtle endorsement of cults and communal living are ultimately ill-advised.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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