The East is a thoughtful thriller about a former secret agent (Brit Marling, stunning as usual) taking a job in the private sector to infiltrate an anarchist collective called The East. The group attacks large corporations for their crimes against the people of the world by literally giving them a taste of their own medicine. Right before Sarah infiltrates the group, they filled all the air vents and water pipes in an oil tycoon’s house with oil because his company caused a catastrophic oil spill in the middle of the ocean. Sarah has to find a way in without losing track of who she really is.
Screenwriter/star Brit Marling and director/screenwriter Zal Batmanglij team up again for another sharp film about perception. Their last film, Sound of My Voice, focused on the culture surrounding a cult led by a charismatic but clearly unhinged “time traveler.” The East focuses on the relationship between a spy and an anarchist cult leader. The two films are riffing on the same genre but do it in vastly different ways.
The East is all about responsibility. Sarah knows that her job is to infiltrate The East at all costs. She fought hard for the opportunity and is willing to sacrifice everything she knows to succeed in her new job. She abandons everything to follow the profile of the group: freegans, romantic modern-day hobos with trust funds, and squatters. She’s only able to make a break on the mission when she abandons all creature comforts like hotel rooms and hot meals to earn the trust of a fellow traveler.
The tone of the film is pervasive and intimidating. This is not a light viewing experience. Batmanglij and Marling share a clear vision and push everyone in the cast to follow it with the screenplay and the direction. You’ve never seen Ellen Page, Alexander Skarsgard, Patricia Clarkson, or Julia Ormand perform like this before. Even if they’re not playing against type, their approach to the material comes totally out of left field. Batmanglij and Marling have crafted an alternate reality that is just far enough removed from the current system of laws and corporate-driven culture to allow for a broader expression of emotions.
There were a few moments that pulled me from The East. The romantic undertones bubbling in The East didn’t feel authentic. The big group stuff with free love and helping each other felt real, but the one on one interactions and petty jealousy felt contrived just to set up a shocking moment going into the final act. A film this inventive and authentic would have been all the better for avoiding Hollywood cliches.
I’m no stranger to watching strange films. Horror has always been my favorite genre. I’ve seen my fair share of shocking imagery and twisted concepts. The East is one of the more disturbing films I’ve seen in a long time. It rocked me to my core. I went to bed with thoughts racing through my mind and woke up still thinking about what happened.
The East is so unsettling as a thriller because it is so believable in the moment. Where Marling has previously allowed a big sci-fi conceit to create a buffer for difficult concepts, The East is firmly grounded in reality. The companies attacked by The East have done things clearly inspired by major headlines of corporate scandal. The whole thing is a wild and unpredictable ride that refuses to allow for an easy ending or any real answers to the questions raised.
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