SXSW: The East (**½)

THE_EAST_poster_FBHow can a movie with such fantastic performances and interesting subject matter feel so drawn out and boring? It’s a quagmire of a situation. On one hand you have an in-depth exploration of eco-terrorism and cultist behavior that’s given time to grow and enrapture you. On the other hand, it takes it’s sweet time to get there and doesn’t really engender any real feeling sfor the characters, making the running time feel much longer than it is. In short, The East manages to be the embodiment of that contradiction, being one of the most enchanting boring movies put to screen. 

Brit Marling plays Sarah, a former FBI agent, who is now working for a private intelligence firm. She’s tasked with infiltrating an anarchist group called The East, who have been engaging in acts of eco-terrorism. After traveling aimlessly throughout Pennsylvania, she happens upon a young member of the group and is drawn into the world of this group. The lines between job and real life begin to blur when she helps the group with jams (aka acts of terrorism) and bonds with the groups enigmatic leader Benji (Alexander Skarsgard).

The main draw to this film will probably be the subject matter, but what will keep you invested in this film is the acting. Brit Marling finally finds a role that plays on her stoicism and blank slate screen presence to great value. Marling, would have made the perfect Hitchcock blonde, has never been so alive on screen as she is here, trading on her quietness and tough exterior. Alexander Skarsgard should be cast in all things, but especially anything that trades on his general likability in morally dubious situations. He’s a magnetic screen presence and he fully embodies his character’s loyalty to the cause. The standout of the ensemble is probably Toby Kebbell, who is given the most tragic backstory and the only one of the group you actually feel was wronged by who they are targeting.

The script, written by director Zal Batmanglij and Marling,  is smart enough to let the relationships play out and give us strong motivations for the characters. The East could have easily fallen a part if it didn’t give us time to learn about and care for the characters. There’s a sense of calm about the proceedings, which seems to make each decision larger than life. Unfortunately the screenplay is undermined by that stoicism and placid direction. For a film about  terrorism and angry people, this film is devoid of a true anger, rage against the machine type fire. Sure you see plenty of characters get mad and yell, but there was too much of a slick sheen on the film that you don’t get any depth. Where was the grit? Or the us against the world? The film is so insulated, that it doesn’t allow for any outward understanding of everything it is throwing at the audience. Also, the pacing of the film is so glacial that it really feels much longer than it is, rendering the stakes more diminutive than they should have been.