Screen Gems

It took a gay director to make one of the great, unsung thrillers of the past decade

The East

Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend dive into queer and queer-adjacent titles of the past that deserve a watch or a re-watch.

The Hidden Gem: The East

Director Zal Batmanglij doesn’t get enough credit. The co-creator of the cult series The OA, and director of sleeper hits including Sound of My Voice and The East is one of the most ambitious and interesting filmmakers working today. Maybe because he’s an openly gay man, his films always also include queer characters and performers, even if in just incidental roles.

To see Batmanglij at his best, look no further than his 2013 indie thriller The East. The film stars his frequent collaborator Brit Marling (with whom he co-wrote the script) as Jane, a private security investigator assigned to research a fringe environmentalist group called The East. Part Greenpeace and part Anonymous, The East has begun carrying out attacks on corporate figures in the name of retribution. Jane manages to infiltrate the group where she develops friendships with several key members of the group including Izzy (Elliot Page) and Doc (Toby Kebbell), and finds herself increasingly attracted to Benji (Alexander Skarsgård), the group’s handsome and charismatic leader. Jane begins to question her own loyalties and motives, as the group begins to plot one disastrous and destructive act of terrorism after another.

The East benefits from an interesting and talented supporting cast: Patricia Clarkson, Billy Magnussen, Jamey Sheridan, Julia Ormond and Jason Ritter all have supporting roles. It also features Marling in her best performance to date. In a career full of ethereal, spaced-out characters, her Jane is much more worldly and physical–it’s the kind of role we’re accustomed to seeing Anne Hathaway or Emily Blunt play. Page turns in his usual, dependable work, while Skarsgård finds more ways to get naked on camera. That’s always a plus.

Much as with Marling, though, The East showcases Batmanglij pushing himself in new ways, and succeeding in doing so. Making a suspense-thriller, especially a thoughtful one, is never easy. Batmanglij shows he can command action sequences, balance a large cast of characters, and get affecting performances out of them. The movie doesn’t have the same budget or scope as, say, the Bourne or Mission: Impossible films, but it has a story just as strong. Tense, mature and crafted by a queer artist at new heights, we recommend giving it a look for its thrills and its thoughts.

Streams on Amazon, iTunes & VUDU.