In The East, a group of forested anarchists take actions ranging from drowning an offshore drilling tycoon’s mansion in oil, to poisoning a pharmaceutical company’s elites with their own medicine, quite literally. They implement a conditional brand of “eco-terrorism,” a term sometimes fully exhibited, and other times harshly labeled. The title refers to their group name, symbolized by a compass whose arrow statically points towards the “E.” It’s a totem to delineate the group from other small terror organizations and also ironically conveys the members’ own fluctuating moral compasses. For these environmental fundamentalists, an eye for an eye has different ways of being understood.
Directed by Zal Batmanglij who also co-wrote the film with Brit Marling, The East is a gritty, morally contentious, political thriller that poignantly captures the ethical quandaries of self-righteous activism and its destructive tendencies. Jane (Brit Marling) is a secret operative for a large company that’s hired to protect the reputations of its high rolling clients. Her boss, Sharon (Patricia Clarkson), orders her to infiltrate The East, report back her findings, and discover the group’s future attack plans, called “jams.” Jane leaves her Washington domesticity, lies to her husband that she’s travelling to Abu Dhabi, and hitchhikes on a cargo train into an indistinct western Pennsylvania. Eluding police and scaling wired fences, Jane finds refuge with an East member who rushes her to their secluded backwoods fortress to treat her self-inflicted wound.
It’s here that she abruptly meets the environmentally militant collective, an eclectic array of individuals closely tethered to their cause. The leader of the pack is Benji (Alexander Skarsgård), a guarded, sensitive man who first appears to us donned in Jesus-like beard and hair. His closest disciples are a dropout med student named Doc (Toby Kebbell) and a hard-edged woman named Izzy (Ellen Page). They greet her reluctantly after she visits Doc, but slowly become more receptive after she participates in their crunchy communal traditions, one involving eating soup with no hands. As a group, The East has a similar appeal to that of Sean Durkin’s film Martha Marcy May Marlene, but Batamanglij is hesitant to portray this group as a pure cult and decides not to overexpose their wilderness living as being passionately or freakishly oblivious to the outside.
There is real heart and mind in this insular commune and Jane finds the group’s navigation into the sometimes-lethal covert operations they perform filled with differing layers of hypocrisy. “When it comes to breaking the law most people can’t handle it,” yells Izzy viciously, after Jane voices her reluctance to any fatal jams. It’s one of the central themes of the film that ultimately dilutes into a utopic compromise. The moral centers of the pharmaceutical, oil, and water giants have been eroded and in certain cases the group’s suggestions of nonviolent activism threaten to dismantle and cause a similar fate to the ecoterrorists themselves. Jane, or Sarah, as The East calls her, fights these types of dualities in her head: not to be too soft or too hard, to fight for what’s right, but to what end?
Batmanglij and Marling have worked together on recent ventures like Another Earth and Sound of My Voice, further examining the connective human condition and seductive pull of group dynamics. Jane negotiates between her duties and pacifist leanings with an assured gentility, trapped between the right and wrongs in each of her ventures. Marling projects this reserved state in her vacant expressions that subtly shift into accepting contented smiles, façades covering her slightest fears of exposure. Batmanglij realizes the importance of her fragile lies and emotional truths- including an intimate attraction to Benji- and fills these lurking moments of thought and silence full of energy.
Arguing over these decisions to poison, kill, or simply inconvenience powerful CEOs is the idyllic microcosm of what the filmmakers ostensibly want this country to surface in its national discourse. Patricia Clarkson, as Jane’s icy boss, plays apathetic to life unless it means dollars and business. “They’re not our client,” she harshly tells Jane over the phone once she realizes the sadistic depth of The East’s plan to the pharmaceutical bigwigs. She changes her mind later after realizing her firm could benefit from rebuilding their image. It’s this kind of soft-relativism that The East cynically cites as its motivating force, a force spiritually driven and present in so few average citizens.
The jams are private missions intent on becoming public, to expose the gated country club and golf course insensitivities to something as toxic as overt as their cruel indifference to the world. Jane’s biggest challenge is justifying their protection as though they are merely innocent victims. The film doesn’t get into the scrupulous specifics of environmental legalities like Silkwood or A Civil Action; instead, The East highlights the general decay of big business and morality when universal human rights are left on the backburner, allowing a counter-revolution to erupt from its radiation.
A small film about a big topic, The East has enough teeth to spur on its lingering questions and qualms. “Why does someone take a job like this?” Jane asks her now excluded and despondent husband. That’s a question ambiguous enough to be applied to the people she’s working to shield, even though they refuse to answer it. The question she- and hopefully we- wants to ask is “How do they still have jobs?”
The East opens in Philly area theaters today.