Film Review: THE EAST (2013)

Director: Zal Batmanglij

Writers:  Zal Batmanglij, Brit Marling

Stars: Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgård, Ellen Page, Toby Kebbell, Shiloh Fernandez, Julia Ormond, Patricia Clarkson, Jason Ritter.

Produced by Scott Free Productions and released in the U.S. in 2013 by Fox Searchlight Pictures, “The East” has been described by major reviewers as a film about eco-terrorism, about eco-anarchists, and about moral ambiguity.  For me, it works best as a thriller about espionage; after all, its tagline is “Spy on us, we’ll spy on you.”  That its double agent works for a private D.C. intelligence firm, protecting large corporate clients whose activities damage the environment, and that its conspiracy involves ecotage and green terrorism make it different enough to hold viewers’ attention.  In the end, however, “The East” is a story of personal transformation.

The movie’s spy, Sarah (played by Marling), a former FBI agent, successfully competes to be chosen by the spymaster, Sharon (Clarkson) to pursue her investigative proposal — infiltrate and compromise The East, an eco-anarchist collective located on the US East Coast.  Sharon sees her younger self in Sarah and warns her not to let her ego get in the way.

Leaving behind her overly-understanding boyfriend, Tim (Ritter), whom she tells that she is going to Dubai, Sarah becomes a “traveler,” searching for access to The East among societal dropouts and counterculture types on the outskirts of East Coast civilization.   She finds a likely group, including Luca (Fernandez),  while freighthopping  and uses the circumstances that arise at their journey’s end to concoct a story that convinces Luca to take her to  the abandoned house where The East is squatting.  There she meets Benji (Skarsgård), the de facto leader of the leaderless group, and Izzy (Page), the group’s ideological true believer.

With some difficulty, Sarah slowly gains the group’s trust, but not without revealing her true identity and purpose to one of the members, Eve (Hillary Baack).  After Eve abruptly leaves the group, Sarah believes that her risk of exposure has vanished.  She stays with the group, participating in three planned “jams” against corporate targets.

After each jam, she returns to Washington to brief Sharon on her progress.  Each time she appears to be more under the sway of the group’s ideology, a “Stockholm Syndrome” that Sharon recognizes as an occupational hazard and counsels Sarah to be wary of.  Sarah’s rising internal conflict (complicated by an increasing attraction to Benji) forces her to rethink where her true allegiance lies.  Her final decision leads to a predictable general conclusion for the film — but its specifics are surprising.

Sarah’s personality is, for me, the most intriguing aspect of “The East.”  At the beginning of the film, she is a success-driven professional whose ambition blinds her to own narcissism.  In a particularly well-done scene, Benji reminds her of her selfishness via an unconventional group meal.  Nevertheless, Sarah is also a person of faith, a trait that is deftly woven into the film.  For example, the first time she is shown driving to work, she is listening to a local Christian radio station.  Later, at the beginning of her mission, she whispers a prayer in which she pleads for humility.  A voice-over at the movie’s end repeats this orison, framing Sarah’s transformation from a self-centered to an idealistic person.