The second feature from writer/director Zal Batmanglij, as premiered at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, is once again a collaboration with actor/writer/producer Brit Marling, but while Sound of My Voice was a puzzle box of possibilities, The East is a stylistic leap with a narrative as driven and determined as its characters, an important film which reflects the concerns of our troubled times when politicians consider the profits of such proceses as hydraulic fracturing while ignoring the known environmental impacts.
Marling is Jane Owen, an ambitious and confident former FBI agent now working for Hiller Brood, the top private security firm in the world. Assigned to infiltrate anarchist collective The East, she tells her boyfriend she is being sent abroad before bleaching her hair and going undercover locally, seeking a contact that will lead her to the group whose activities threaten corporations they claim have damaged the environment and endangered lives, corporations who are clients of Hiller Brood.
Falling in with a band of travellers, hopping freight trains and eating from dumpsters, an act of kindness to a young man indicates to “Sarah” that the lead she was hoping for may have been travelling alongside her, but before she can move further she must win the trust of first her guide, the ostensible leader of the organisation, Benji, and his diverse associates.
Marling’s character may be the focus of the film, but her performance as the increasingly conflicted mole is not a showcase, as like the group she has entered the cast are an ensemble, each of whom she will have to convince to trust her before she can be accepted. She already knows Luca from their travels and Doc opens up to her as he treats her injuries, revealing his reasons for joining the group; as a volunteer worker aid worker in Kenya he was inoculated with the antibiotic Dinoxin, unaware of the side effects that would follow.
As Benji, Alexander Skarsgård is enigmatic and charismatic, challenging Sarah, but hoping that she will pass his tests; while he guides The East, their agenda is set by the members, and it is Ellen Page’s abrasive Izzy who will prove the greatest obstacle, angry, critical and watching Sarah for any sign that she is not committed to the agenda.
It is on her first mission to McCabe Grey Pharmaceuticals, the company determined to “supply Dinoxin to every man and woman in uniform,” a generous offer of support of the US armed forces underpinned by $1.4 billion in revenue, where Sarah’s beliefs and convictions are tested. She has seen first hand the effects of the drug on Doc, and knows if ingested unknowingly it may have dangerous consequences, yet the board members whose gathering they have infiltrated are the very ones who are insistent that the medication is entirely safe.
The East is an examination of moral ambiguity, both personal and corporate, as Sarah finds herself torn between loyalty to her employer and the people she was told were terrorists but has come to know as friends, between what is questionably right and what is undeniably wrong. While structured and filmed as a thriller, the film breaks even those rules; a montage as the team prepare for a mission is soundtracked to Doc playing piano rather than inspirational rock power chords, and the ethos and goals of the group are eminently real and drawn from genuine incidents.
Brit Marling cannot help but craft fascinating, challenging and ambiguous roles for herself, but she and Batmanglij have not shortchanged the rest of the cast in any way, from the magnetic warmth of Skarsgård’s Benji, the idealistic realist, through Patricia Clarkson as Sarah’s ruthless and unsympathetic superior to the vulnerable intensity of Hillary Baack as Eve, Sarah’s warden when she first arrives at the group with whom she forms an unexpected bond.
Despite the important questions and issues raised by the film, it is these moments of connection and introspection which set The East apart from the generic Hollywood thriller, the genuine warmth between the members of the collective which makes them more than straw men to be knocked down but genuine people fighting for change in an indifferent world which is frighteningly recognisable.