Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling spent two months of the 2009 summer practicing Freeganism—eating edible, discarded food, often found in trashcans—and pursuing a moneyless existence, largely out of need, so they could make The Sound Of My Voice. Sometime before they began filming that film, however, they co-wrote The East, a political drama/thriller based largely on their experiences, which would become the duo’s second collaboration.
If the politics of the The East are anything to go by, their experiences were quite profound. The opening, documentary-esque scene juxtaposes images of oil-stained animals with the invasion of the home of a CEO responsible for an oil leak, and we quickly learn the break-in, which deposited oil into the home’s ventilation system, is the work of the titular group.
It’s a strong opening, one that positions the film as a post-Occupy endorsement of vigilante justice and maligns the big businesses that pollute the environment and ignore the public’s health/safety in the name of wealth. The rest of the film fails to live up to the opening’s powerful syntax, but it also side-steps the heavy-handed politics that run throughout and provides an entertaining, occasionally thrilling drama along the way.
The East follows Sarah, (Brit Marling), an undercover worker for an intelligence agency that seeks to dismantle domestic terrorist shells like The East and sell their security to the big corporations who they target. Sarah is introduced as a wife/girlfriend but quickly turns into a top-notch spy/intelligence gatherer whose job is to infiltrate The East. The storytelling in these formative scenes is quite choppy. Shots last noticeably shorter than they should and thus give the film a disjointed feel, as if someone forced Batmanglij to collapse 30 minutes into 20. Similarly, it’s hard to figure out exactly what logic Sarah is using in her initial attempts to gain the trust of Luca (Shiloh Fernandez) and be taken in by The East, or why she gets locked up for sneaking onto a train while everyone else gets away (perhaps it’s because she tried to defend Luca after he is punched, but it’s not clear).
Regardless, Sarah is taken to The East’s hideout, and things begin to make more sense. She partakes in their Freeganism and is astonished at how frequently delicious apples are discarded before being eaten, and after an initial embarrassment, she learns how to eat dinner with a strait-jacket on and is joining in games of Spin The Bottle with a heartier feel and a Democratic twist.
It’s these details of The East, along with the sharp characterizations of the individual members, that make the group, and hence the film, work. There is a generally shared sentiment about the corruption of wealth and the need to restore the environment, but also intense disagreements about whether, as Izzy (Ellen Page) puts it, “two wrongs make a right” or if The East should be making their point in a more harmless fashion. These questions provide the central ideological drama that complicates the heavy liberal ideology. As expected, the corporation Sarah works for is more concerned with wealth than morality, and the good-intentions of The East win her over. The big questions are: how far should one go to tell the world of corporate wrongs, and do the individual relationships outweigh the message of their alleged revolution?
The East operates firmly within a shot/reverse-shot aesthetic, but it wisely never indulges in the moral crimes it portrays. When the group finds a dead deer and decide to eat it (“the best way to honor it is to not let it go to waste,” Izzy says), the process of cutting into it is portrayed respectfully and non-gratuitously, and it is later harkened back to in a scene that equates animal life with human life.
The East loses steam in its third-act when Sarah returns to her husband/boyfriend, an aspect of her that has thus far been completely ignored and is phoned-in to completion, and there is a strange detail near the film’s end that is needlessly puzzling and completely ignored*, but the ending statement is strong. The environmental, public-safety minded practices and concerns of groups like The East are important, but one can only go so far in trying to fix the world before they begin becoming their own villains. In the end, The East seems to suggest that the echoes of democracy and information exchange that we see so often are a better solution than vigilantism, although it also turns large, complex issues into conspiratorial ones. The former point is ideal and maybe even naïve, but also in line with the subtle ideals we see brimming within the cult itself; the conspiracy theories, on the other hand, detract from the film’s larger message. In the end, big flaws balance out an entertaining thriller.
*To specify on this contains a spoiler that I decided should not go in the main review, but here it is: When Sarah and Benji are leaving the parking lot of Sarah’s employer at the end of the film, we see a van follow them. The rest of the scene is shot from inside the car, and anytime we get a look out the rear window, we see the car following them and taking the same turns. At one point, Benji makes a turn and we can see that their follower has grown to a fleet of vans. It’s begging to be noticed, and it needs to be important, but absolutely nothing happens with it, it’s as if it just happened that way while shooting the film.