Ambivalence about corporate evil in a cult thriller
The East is a thriller about a private intelligence firm that protects large corporations from “ecoterrorist” groups by infiltrating them and sabotaging them — more or less the same thing the “ecoterrorists” do to corporations, but with law enforcement backup. The story’s focus is confused; it takes no stand — or does it? It gives rise to more questions than it answers, and its screenplay, though clever, and partly based on experience, feels improvised. But while the action is going on and the music is surging, the movie, as a genre piece, firmly holds our attention. It even has a touch of class, helped by some stellar (and adorable) actors and by the handsome cinematography of Roman Vasyanov. But it doesn’t seem as memorable as some related movies, which is some ways it also too much resembles.
The protagonist of The East is a risk-taking, driven, and — this is surely important — very pretty young woman with an FBI background, called undercover Sarah, real name Jane (Brit Marling, who co-scripted, her third time at that). Directed by Sharon (Patricia Clarkson), her coolly professional (read: amoral) company boss and handler, and seemingly falling in with it by chance after hopping a freight train with one of its members, Jane/Sarah penetrates a group called The East. Why it has this name is one of those unanswered questions. Getting its members’ sympathy by cutting herself, Sarah is at once drawn into The East, and later unwittingly attracted to its lifestyle and anti-corporate views. In some ways it seems like a cult, rather like the one in Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, where Elizabeth Olsen resembles Brit Marling. But The East is cult lite: its members utter some mumbo jumbo, and engage in odd rituals like dining wearing straight jackets and playing a ponderous form of spin-the-bottle, but because they’re “anarchists,” I guess, they aren’t under anybody’s spell. The East’s members eat Dumpster food, and squat in a large burned-out house, which turns out to have belonged to the family of one of their leaders, Benji. He is played by Alexander Skarsgård, who as usual is laid-back, appealing, and — this is important — handsome, making him a natural match for Sarah. Maybe the leader is Izzy (Ellen Page). She doesn’t seem like a leader or ideologue either, but she is convincingly irritating and bossy — the Ellen Page of Juno without the humor or the charm. She seems burdened with something: it turns out her father is an odious CEO.
Are anarchists (another label used) or “ecoterrorists” (a word I thought more usually related to environmentalism like Edward Abbey’s) in groups that are like cults? Are there many of them? Are they successful? We don’t know but hints are given out of the fact that currently the US government, and not just private intelligence firms, is after them, and metes out severe punishments to them, one “terrorist” being much like another, in corporate and government eyes. Anyway, Sarah is involved with The East as a backup member when others disappear or are eliminated. But while her penetration may or may not be successful, her intention of blocking the group’s “jams” seemingly isn’t. These “jams” aren’t surprise public sing-alongs; they’re acts of corporate sabotage.
The East’s first big “jam” with Sarah on hand involves the executives of a major drug company at a party. Infiltrating East members poison the corporate partiers by injecting one of their own medications into their glasses of champagne. This drug has caused brain damage, even though it’s being administered wholesale to the people of Kenya. They know this because one of their own members with medical experience in Africa, known as Doc (Toby Kebbell) is himself a victim. (This is the same theme that The Constant Gardener treats in considerably more depth). Spin doctoring by the corporation follows when the sabotage comes out, but later also testimony indicating the drug’s dire consequences on the brain have been made public. Fox News each time is the source. This is, by the way, a Fox Searchlight film.
The next “jam” is to personally capture and torment the heads of an oil company responsible for a different kind of poisoning. The water supply of a town has long been contaminated by arsenic and lead, causing deaths of children. It turns out The East has personal involvement here too: one of them is a member of the CEO’s family. Benji, by the way, has no personal tie-in with corporate wrongdoing; he just became aware of the corrupting power of wealth by inheriting a lot of money.
And so it goes, with many emotional scenes, in one of which Sarah performs abdominal surgery, directed by Doc, whose brain damage from the drug he took has made his hands too shaky. Sarah and Benji (spoiler alert) kiss. Sharon reveals her chilly indifference to anything but the good of her intelligence firm’s clients. Sarah seems ready to “turn,” but she and Benji (spoiler alert again) “turn” in different directions.
Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij also collaborated on a previous movie, Sound of My Voice, which is about a cult, infiltrated by a pair of journalists. Zal and Brit say that in 2009 when they were low on money they spent a summer hopping freights, Dumpster-diving, and hanging out with “anarchists” themselves, and drew on that experience for these two movies. Marling also collaborated on the screenplay and starred in the high concept lo-fi sci-fi movie Another Earth, which was at Sundance 2011 along with Sound of My Voice but was released later. It has gotten the best reviews, but anyway Brit seems established as a multi-bankable talent by now. The East is more high budget and more conventional than the other two. In his NY Times review A.O. Scott hints that giving each key member of The East some purely personal reason for commitment to the “jams” loses any sense that “anarchists” or “ecoterrorists” have a shared ideology and common body of knowledge. Scott decides it’s futile to wish that this movie “would frame the contradictions of contemporary capitalism more rigorously.” What he means by “contradictions” he doesn’t say but maybe the big one this movie ignores is how much the interests of corporations and government have become indistinguishable. Actually, what The East flirted with but couldn’t do was endorse illegal anti-corporate activism. Or could it? Well, not in a commercial genre thriller distributed by Fox Searchlight.
DIRECTOR: ZAL BATMANGLIJ
WRITER: ZAL BATMANGLIJ, BRIT MARLING
STARS: BRIT MARLING, ALEXANDER SARSGARD, PATRICIA CLARKSON, ELLEN PAGE, TOBY KEBBELL, SHILOH FERNANDEZ, ALDIS HODGE, DANIELLE MACDONALD, HILARY BAACK, JASON RITTER, BILLY MAGNUSSEN, WILBER FITZGERALD, JAMES SHERIDAN
RUNTIME: 116 MINS APPROX