The East, Review

A disquieting taste of forbidden eco-terrorist fantasy, The East strikes a nerve.

More than a decade after 9/11, terrorism has become pop culture’s dirty little secret of escapist fantasy. Almost every year now, a new film comes along that glorifies or tantalizes its audience with the forbidden taste of wanton destruction. Whether in the shape of Joker, Bane, Javier Bardem or this summer’s reinvention of Khan, audiences like a macabre tale that lets them revel in a society set on fire, before a moralistic coda reassures them that they are above such nihilistic cravings. Director Zal Batmanglij and his co-writer/leading lady Brit Marling seek to offer no such easy ethics or comforting answers in their eco-terrorist flick, The East. Opening today in select cities, the creative duo paints a vividly real world where punkish anarchism gives way to a disquieting retaliation against the “One Percent.” If this beatnik group of revolutionaries should be considered chilling villains or heroic protagonists will depend entirely on each individual viewer. Sarah Moss is the undercover name of Marling’s ambitious young heroine when the film starts. Having worked for the FBI in the past, Sarah quickly finds herself excelling in the elite private intelligence firm Hiller Brood, run by an icy Patricia Clarkson. As one of the most successful and secretive spies-for-hire in Washington, Sarah is practically enlisted the same day that she kisses her caring boyfriend goodbye to go undercover. Brown locks are traded in for blond streaks and a ragged hoodie takes the place of D.C. professionalism. Conveniently, Sarah immediately infiltrates her target: the East. An eco-centric group of violent activists, the mysterious cell is lashing out at corporate monsters profiteering on the suffering and destruction of others, including an oil CEO who spilled billions of crude into the Atlantic and a pharmaceutical giant that’s been selling suicide-inducing drugs. After a few days of partying with high school dropouts and train jumpers in the backwoods of Pennsylvania, Sarah finds herself at the heart of a group of radicals/freedom-fighters. Kind of a cross between Code Pink and the Manson family, the East initially resembles a cult with Benji (Alexander Skarsgard) and Izzy (Ellen Page) as their masters. However, after slowly being accepted into the family by proving herself a helpful free spirit, Sarah begins to see meaning in their causes and accepting nature.
 The East poses an unpleasant question about the role of accountability in the mega-corporate world. Every “jam,” the names the East gives their attacks, are perpetrated upon companies and persons hopelessly guilty. These are not some fantastical caricatures of corrupt individuals, but fictional proxies to the kind of stories that are an accepted fact of life in our media age. Coal burners who deny harmful side effects to their dumping of chemicals in a nearby river; drug barons toasting champagne afforded by some of the most disturbing products on the market; big oil making even bigger spills. This type of extreme decadence and astonishing refusal of responsibility is only plausible because we see it in the news everyday. In the movie’s world, the amount of oligarchic control is so pervasive that the heroine is not even working for an accepted authority figure. Sarah has left the public world of the FBI for the far more lucrative espionage of a company so secretive that most people have never heard of them. In fact, the movie’s FBI is so diffident that it’s only mentioned off-screen as an ineffectual group who Clarkson updates from time-to-time about Hiller Brood’s developments. In that sense, Sarah is hardly a hero when she is working for those seeking to protect their interests. During a moment of moral crisis about the East pulling off one of its early “jams,” she calls her boss to warn of the attack. Clarkson listens along patiently before stating that the company in question is “not my client.” Why should she care if some people who aren’t paying her are poisoned? Playing on the theme of earnest righteousness in our decaying capitalist world, Marling makes her Sarah into something of an enigma. She is established early on to have a strong sense of decency with her constant prayers to God during her private time. Even on her way to work in the Maryland suburbs outside of D.C., she is shown repeatedly listening to Christian choirs and admiring the beauty of horses in a meadow. It is actually difficult to believe someone this pious could do the things required for sneaking undercover into an anarchist commune. However, it could explain why the East might look pretty damn tempting in comparison to another day at Hiller Brood.
 The East itself is carefully and delicately realized as a believable group of counterculture malcontents and not some dippy pop punk party. The house that they believe they’re squatting in, burned to a crisp, is shrouded in the kind of woods that provides plenty of privacy for dirty deeds, as well as nurturing food for when they are not dumpster diving. Variations of spin the bottle and secular baptism in the nearby lake creates an authentic sense of community after a trippy introduction involving eating dinner in a straight jacket. Most of the members are underdeveloped, save for the three central players. Toby Kebball brings an affective energy to Doc, the med student whose life was ruined in more than one way by a miracle drug that turned into a nightmare. As the only member actually wronged by synergetic malfeasance, Doc gives a humanizing face to the victims and communities the East claims to represent. Meanwhile, Page (the film’s biggest star) is allowed to show flashes of that judging outrage that terrified millions of males the world over during a certain scene in 2005’s Hard Candy. Her Izzy, a rich girl who has rejected the blood stained money of her family’s wealth, is honestly underused as the idealistic branch of the militants. Finally, there is Benji. Played with a slow burning charisma, Skarsgard is the type of zealot whose easy going fanaticism intoxicates everyone he meets. Within moments, it is clear that all of the East orbits all of his whims, if only to bask in his glow. Sarah is no different in the way she is immediately drawn to the man of the woods. The East makes for a queasy thriller because of its constantly shifting scales. Like Sarah, we are not sure if we should sympathize with their victims or root on a satisfying vengeance. It all has an air of intellectual justification and poetic irony, but as the group discovers, revolutions do not start because a PR person loses her mind. The movie is so awash in ambiguity that the overly rushed conclusion is far too neat for my taste. Instead of continuing to ask questions, the movie ends with one answer that will not fit all sizes. Similarly, a number of Sarah’s shifting motivations feel like the product of plotting, as opposed to the character. Yet, despite its last minute shortcomings, the real challenge of the movie’s thesis begins when the lights come up. Could such actions ever be justified and would it even matter if they were? It is a conundrum that cannot be solved in two hours.