Has there ever been a better-timed tagline than the one for The East: “Spy on us, we’ll spy on you.”
Brit Marling (who co-wrote the script with director Zal Batmanglij) stars as Sarah Moss, a young former FBI agent now operating in the private sector. Sanctimonious but not necessary unlikeable, she firmly believes in her work for private security firm Hiller Brood. As such, when they send her to infiltrate anarchist collective The East, Sarah has no qualms about doing so. What her interaction with the group reveals is just how morally compromised she is, and, by extension, we are, too.
Before long, Sarah gains entrance to the group, who are wary of this eager stranger in their midst. At first you are never quite sure whether The East is a free love commune, a sinister cult, or a real force for good in the world: Alexander Skarsgard’s group leader Benji has a touch of Charles Manson and his vengeful lieutenant Izzy (Ellen Page) definitely feels like a Squeaky Fromme in the making. One of The East‘s greatest strengths is this sense of ambiguity.
With HQ an ivy-covered house deep in woods, Sarah’s experiences have an otherworldly quality to them, and, indeed, by night the group’s inner circle don masks and indulge in bonfire-side rituals. By day, however, they plan their “jams”, going after the rich and amoral. Though initially repelled by their self-righteousness, Sarah quickly finds her allegiances torn.
Though Sarah’s journey is fascinating, given the nature of the film it has a certain inevitability to it. What fascinates is The East‘s ability to hold us, the audience, in check. We agree with Izzy’s sentiment, “They say two wrongs don’t make a right. That makes me think whoever said it has never been wronged before”, but we, like Sarah, understand that it can only end in tragedy. Apparently Batmanglij and Marling considered making the film about the perpetrators of the current financial crisis – the antipathy the average person bears them, however, might overwhelm the objectivity.
Marling plays Sarah as an in-control professional – down-the-line, unemotive – but with a certain vulnerability that prevents her from seeming wooden. Her romantic entanglement with starey-man Benji, however, is only really sold by Skasgard’s charisma. Page, meanwhile, displays a more mature version of the furious indignation that brought her to the world’s attention in Hard Candy.
The tragedy when it arrives has been strongly foreshadowed and yet remains shocking. There’s a shocking battlefield-style surgery that apes 127 Hours amputation (similarly nothing seen, but more tension and a less overbearing score) and a clever motif of horses running: each time Sarah sees them what they mean – nature, flight, proximity to home – changes. The film itself is similar, multi-faceted, but the film ultimately fails to commit.
The message that business is complicated and revenge is messy is a worthy one, but The East‘s attempts to navigate this fractured path leave it’s finale a little directionless. We sympathize with the anarchists, but understand their tactics are unsanctionable; nevertheless, Sarah cannot return to the life she once knew. The film slyly opts for compromise, the middle path, which, while intellectually the right choice, never quite resonates dramatically.
Sarah somehow finds a way to take action while keeping her hands clean. If only the reality were quite that simple…
For most of its run-time a terrifically taut thriller, The East‘s climax is hamstrung by its commitment to “fairness”. Also deserving of a mention are Tony Kebbell’s puppyish, brain-damaged Doc and Patricia Clarkson’s dry, matronly security head. Given its anti-corporate underpinnings, it’s perhaps a tad ironic that the film’s distributor is none other than Fox Searchlight.
If less than revolutionary, the film deserves praise for challenging conceit on both sides of the aisle.