The East is brave. Brave in a way that other political thrillers in its vein, chief among them the Robert Redford-helmed The Company You Keep, keep trying to find moral outs for their characters. It's foolish to think that the struggle for ideological purity has ever been without its victims, or people who were willing to go beyond the edge in pursuit of their version of moral perfection. But now with the technology we have at our disposal we see this clash taking place every day on so many fronts that the only response anyone seems to have is to shore up further in their ideological strain and convince themselves that they are right.
There is no safe zone in The East. The characters are operating on the fringes of their respective movements, with Patricia Clarkson rallying the protective forces of corporate espionage against eco-terrorists, and Alexander Skarsgard representing a spiritual purity movement that is willing to go to extreme lengths to obtain their goals. Brit Marling is our eyes through the struggle, looking for ways to reconcile the two extremes and put them within talking distance of one another, instead of striking out randomly.
This film does its best not to take sides, but often indulges in images that are impossible not to interpret as positive for the forces of ecological good. Even with that, there's a certain magic at play with this film, one that feels strange given the polarized atmosphere of the plot. It's the magic of compromise, the gray zone where the only moral imperative is to try and grasp the picture instead of playing to the dark or the light. It's in this place where The East puts us in free-fall, wondering where we might land.
The plot is built out of some standard-grade thriller parts that combine into a much more impressive whole. Jane (Marling) is in line for a job doing intelligence work for a top security firm headed by Sharon (Clarkson). She gets the position, and is immediately put under cover to try and infiltrate an eco-terrorist cell that is targeting CEOs of companies responsible for oil spills and other ecological disasters. This puts her in touch with the enigmatic Benji (Skarsgard), who leads the East, a shambling crew of dropouts who are always in the planning stages of their next jam to gum up the works of the corporate machine.
One thing that really impressed me about Zal Batmanglij's direction is the way that he presents the stifling complexity of Jane's situation as a nearly constant panic attack. You wouldn't know it based on the idyllic surroundings of the East's hideout, but there's a near-constant source of hyperventilation on the soundtrack. From the industrial drone that feeds into the opening scenes of animals dealing with the oil spills, to the near horror-film environments that Jane finds herself in, the soundtrack rarely lets up with how exasperating it is being in the grey zone.
What bits of freedom work their way into the film are represented by each side being able to plead their case sometimes directly, and sometimes through their recreation. The camera peels back when the cell plays a game of spin the bottle based entirely on gentle caresses and love, underscored by their willingness to hurt people to get their goals accomplished. Other times we pull back for an impromptu baptism of a CEO who is covered with the results of his handiwork, begging for forgiveness from his family. Batmanglij knows exactly when to pull back from the thriller and let them plead their case, otherwise we would never know just how deep the stakes go.
He also traffics in images that I started off responding to with an eye roll and ended in absolute wonder. This is where his sympathies for the cell are at their most obvious as they gather together for a dinner that so closely resembles "The Last Supper" DaVinci could rise from the dead and sue for plagiarism. But when the scene continues with Jane struggling to feed herself and she is shown that the only way to true sustenance is to help your neighbor, it was very hard not for me to feel overwhelmed by the pure empathy of the scene. Even if the moments start in what feels like a silly place, they quickly evolve into wonderful expressions of Jane's struggle.
I also like that the script, penned by both Batmanglij and Marling, is willing to take the piss out of some of these moments. Right when things seem to be a bit too perfect, Jane will chime in with worthy questions like, "Why is it that self-righteousness goes hand in hand with resistence movements?" They're willing to look at the motives of even the "good guys" with a skeptical eye as there's still a bit of posturing going on. I do wish that some of that balance was in play with the corporate side of the struggle, as there is an overabundance of comments from the elite about the poor helping themselves, but the script does try to keep things balanced on their end as well.
So Jane makes her choices, and is willing to deal with the consequences. The East is aware enough to know that both sides aren't entirely ready to work through the fallout of their decisions. The thrills don't come so much from whether Jane will be discovered or not, but whether she is going to be capable of figuring out what the right thing to do is. Her choices are not physical, but ethical, which puts The East squarely in a rare category of films that challenge their audience to think about their own moral compass. Politics could use this kind of self-examination.
Directed by Zal Batmanglij.
Screenplay written by Batmanglij and Brit Marling.
Starring Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgard, Ellen Page, and Patricia Clarkson.