The East is an interesting proposition – a thriller about a group of eco-terrorists calling themselves The East, who engage in criminal acts, persecuting corporate CEOs whom they hold guilty for crimes against humanity. It is timely what with the increasing and increasingly justified anger at the 1% and with the concern for the future of the environment. And although the film is mainly about the moral dilemmas of an agent who has infiltrated the group, this is still an interesting and rare occurrence in which Hollywood encourages us not to sympathize with the rich and famous.
Sarah Moss (star and co-writer Brit Marling) is an up-and-coming intelligence agent hired by a private firm that gathers intelligence for corporate clients. A group called The East is targeting three major corporations for their crimes against the environment – they have already flooded one CEO’s house with oil following his role in a major oil spill. Sarah is charged with infiltrating the group and finding out who their next three targets are. She makes contact with The East, led by Benji (Alexander Skarsgård) and including Izzy (Ellen Page) and Doc (Toby Kebbell), both of whom have good reasons to hate the corporations. As Sarah, a keen Catholic, is accepted into the group, she finds her morals and her loyalties increasingly tested.
Zal Batmanglij directs the film as if it is a big spy thriller and employs a really rather overblown Patricia Clarkson (playing Sharon, Sarah’s boss) as The Villian, constantly given lines from dumb action films, in a not entirely convincing attempt to raise the stakes. It strikes a discordant note at the beginning but the film soon settles down, becoming a morality play about terrorism, anarchism and espionage. Writers Batmanglij and Marling make sure to match every crime perpetrated by The East with one from either the corporate world or the security world. The East invades people’s privacy but then so does Sharon and her cronies. As well as this, The East’s crimes specifically mirror crimes committed by their corporate targets. “If you spy on us, we’ll spy on you. If you poison our habitats, we’ll poison yours,” intones Izzy at the beginning of the film – again, quite overblown.
This means that Sarah’s eventual conversion is never unexpected and it does remove a lot of complications and shades of grey that would have been fruitfully pursued. The film is never daring enough to leave its audience to make up their own mind and it never dares to allow its characters to become too unlikeable. One potentially interesting scene set on the side of a polluted lake would have raised several interesting questions and would surely have split the audience but is quickly deflated when the criminal CEO has a sudden and slightly unbelievable attack of conscience. The same goes for one of the members of The East, Doc, who unremorsefully takes vengeance against an entirely detestable corporation only to be briefly seen late in the film writing a letter of apology. Though these moments and the conclusions one can draw from them are justified in themselves they do rob the audience of the opportunity to engage critically with the film, instead constantly telling them what to think. The film addresses issues that are apt for discussion and yet offers very simplistic solutions.
As a result, The East comes across more as a thriller than as an interesting interrogation of a very topical phenomenon. It isn’t helped by an ending that we can see coming a mile away, one that literalises Sarah’s dilemma to the point of ridiculousness. Similarly, the film ends on a triumphant note of “Everything’s fine” – all loose ends and moral questions are cleared up and the problems of the world are solved because, in the end, people who do evil things are nonetheless decent and just need a bit of a talking-to. The East had promise. It could have been a fascinating study of the morals of anarchism against apathy, one with powerful links to the here and now, but it instead opts for the clichés and closure of a dumb spy thriller.
Nonetheless, the film is entertaining. What it lacks in philosophical, moral and politic rigour, it almost makes amends for with a hotfooted narrative and some good performances – particularly Marling and the members of The East. Some of the New Age elements of The East will probably make you roll your eyes or laugh out loud, particularly how they eat their beans or how they relax – spin the bottle and washing each other in a creek. The audacious and complex schemes that these people pull off are impressive if slightly unconvincing coming as they do after such scenes. However, Batmanglij and Marling have pulled together a fun and well-paced thriller, even if it is a good, easy one when it should have been a great, complex one.
That being said, it is nice to see a film that sympathises with anarchists even if its black-and-white morality departs from reality. In this regard, The East is a welcome alternative to the reactionary right-wing films that Hollywood typically releases. The East might offer some pretty useless answers but the fact that it at least recognises that there is a problem is a good start.