The East is a movie of its time, born out of a mix of outrage and advocacy. At the outset there’s imagery of the BP oil spill. Scattered throughout the movie are little impressions of the Occupy, anarchist collectives, and Anonymous. There’s anger over pharmaceutical companies, the privilege of the elite, energy companies causing pollution.
Guiding The East are Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling, the director and star, respectively, of the promising religious cult movie Sound of My Voice. (Batmanglij and Marling co-wrote both films.) Along for the ride are Alexander Skarsgård and Ellen Page. There’s so much going for The East before the movie even starts.
And yet as urgent and timely as the subject matter is, and as much as I personally agree with a lot of the ideas being expressed by the anarchists, The East doesn’t get as morally murky or ideologically complicated as it could. In fact in the case of the main character, the writing is unfortunately reductive.
[This review was originally posted as part of our South by Southwest 2013 coverage. It has been reposted to coincide with the theatrical release of The East.]
Director: Zal Batmaglij
Release Date: May 31, 2013
Our first introduction to the group The East comes right at the beginning. They record their break in of an oil mogul’s mansion, the video intercut with images of birds and marine life dying in an oil spill pulled straight from the Gulf Coast a few years ago. The members of The East begin to pour crude oil through the air vents as an act of revenge. All the while, Page delivers a statement of purpose in a voice that’s part-zeal and part-drone but all true-believer.
To stop these acts of eco-terrorism and corporate terrorism, a private intelligence organization called Hiller-Brood has been set up. They’re sort of like the private-contractor version of the CIA and the FBI — like OCP bought one of them or started their own. Marling plays Sarah Moss, an operative recruited by Hiller-Brood to infiltrate The East and gather information on their members and their acts of terror, which The East refers to as “jams.” As Sarah leaves her comfortable life for the field, she goes on a hobo adventure before finally becoming enmeshed with The East. At the head of the group is the charismatic Benji (Alexander Skarsgård), who at first looks like a dashing version of Charles Manson.
Sarah is a competent-enough young agent in the field, able to handle herself physically and steel herself mentally for what’s ahead. When inside the group itself, she’s able to keep her distance. It’s hard to say exactly where she stands ideologically in all this. She works for a 1% organization, but at the same time she can’t be so naive about the nature of corporate malfeasance and the general disregard a lot of large companies have for the environment or for people at the bottom. Her own tie to The East needs to be complicated in some way to justify what happens in the film.
As for The East themselves, they’re an odd group that’s less like a menacing collection of anarchists and more like a summer camp for radicals. For example, there’s the initiation rite for Sarah. It’s an expression of the cause as a collective, but it feels more like a corporate team-building exercise. That’s fine, I guess, but pretty darn silly as well. Later the group plays spin the bottle, which adds to the odd summer camp vibe. There’s also communal bathing. At the very least, the cast does all of this with a straight face, just the way an actual collective of true believers would do it. There’s actually not a single weak performance in the film given the material, and yet I think the characters are more like underwritten radical-types rather than fully realized characters who are radicals. Page especially has just the one mode of drone, but she does it with dead-eyed conviction.
The undercurrent of silliness might have been intentional in Batmaglij and Marling’s script. And yet there’s such an air of seriousness to all the proceedings, both from the collective and from Hiller-Brood, it’s hard to tell. A lack of humor is the sure sign of an ideological extreme, but the audience I watched it with didn’t seem to clue into that. At one point before a terrorist act, Page’s character is ardent about pursuing the whole action to the end. “This is my jam!” she insists. I think I was the only one in the theater laughing — not in a mocking way, but in a way that at least was hip to the gag.
Going into The East I expected a few possibilities for Sarah’s gradual affinity with the group. There’s the Stockholm syndrome possibility, for one, in which she may be mentally or physically broken in some way so severe that she begins to sympathize with her captors (e.g., Patty Hearst). But that’s not it since she’s actually free to leave the collective if she pleases and its members are all very supportive. There’s also the possibility that the cause of The East would win her over based on the compelling power of the ideology. And yet that’s not it either since Sarah constantly expresses moral qualms about what The East is doing even if she understands why. The East seems like Sarah’s only friends on the road, and yet she isn’t so isolated at home — she has a loving husband who trusts her and is fully supportive of her career choices.
Here’s the reductive part I mentioned much earlier, and I’m doing my best to avoid spoilers: the reason Sarah feels growing ties to The East has less to do with ideology or action and more to do with the loins. She’s slowly falling in love with Benji. In other words, this strong character isn’t being allured by the way a cause speaks to her own strength or how people around her speak to her own deeply-held convictions in life. No, no, she just really likes a boy and wants to jump his bones. (Suddenly spin the bottle makes so much sense.) Now given, Skarsgård is a handsome man and his character is a romantic radical hero, but I think this part of the story does a disservice to the Sarah character and the potential of the film’s ideas.
And that’s the thing. Where the plot of The East goes to has a lot of potential if you think of it just in terms of point A and point Z; the problem is all that stuff in the middle of the alphabet. More than that, I think the moral gray area and complexity is lacking since this is a movie about extremes — a private contractor that serves the interests of the elite and a radical collective living on trash — and only one of these groups actually has some humanity to them even if they are kidnapping and poisoning people. Complexity would come when a third way is suggested. Or fourth, or fifth, and so on. The moral gray area is choice G, choice M, choice R, etc. — again, all that stuff in the middle of the alphabet between A and Z.
At the Q & A after the screening, Batmaglij and Marling mentioned how the film’s script came together quickly, right after the BP spill, just as Occupy was becoming a movement, while Wikileaks was continuing to disseminate information, and I assume as Bradley Manning was becoming a martyr for transparency. They said they were trying to follow the momentum of these expressions of anger and advocacy, always trying to catch up to them. It sounds weird, but I wish they’d slowed down a little. Sure, they might have been a step or two behind the zeitgeist, but they’d have made up for it in the urgency of the film’s message and the better execution of their story.