US, UK / 116 minutes / color with some bw / Scott Free, Dune, Fox Searchlight Dir: Zal Batmanglij, Brit Marling Pr: Michael Costigan, Jocelyn Hayes, Brit Marling, Ridley Scott Scr: Brit Marling, Zal Batmanglij Cine: Roman Vasyanov Cast: Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgård, Ellen Page, Toby Kebbell, Shiloh Fernandez, Aldis Hodge, Danielle Macdonald, Hillary Baack, Patricia Clarkson, Jason Ritter, Julia Ormond, Billy Magnussen, Wilbur T. Fitzgerald, Jamey Sheridan.
Ex-FBI agent Jane Owen (Marling), now working for the security operation Hiller–Brood, which contracts to various corporations, goes undercover as Sarah Moss to penetrate an ecoterrorism group called The East, whose mission is, one corporation at a time, to bring home to CEOs and other powers that be the meaning of their crimes by inflicting upon them a measure of the same suffering that they’ve happily meted out to others. She finds The East to be a small group spearheaded by Benji (Skarsgård), Izzy (Page)—the nickname’s short for Isabella Duncan, although Izzy’s real name is Katie Cannon—and Doc (Kebbell), a physician who’s dying because of a contaminated antibiotic.
The East has promised that it will commit three “jams”—acts of retribution—over the next six months. Sarah/Jane is roped in for the first of these, and begins slowly to be won over to The East’s cause. That first jam involves infiltrating the party being thrown by pharmaceuticals company McCabe–Gray to celebrate the contract the firm has just received to supply the US military with its “miracle drug” Dinoxin. Attending as wait-staff or guests, The East’s members lace the champagne with Dinoxin and, sure enough, over the next few days and weeks the company’s bigwigs fall ill from ingesting the drug.
Richard Cannon (Jamey Sheridan) discovers the hard way about the water his company has been polluting.
The second jam involves Izzy’s father Richard Cannon (Sheridan), an industrialist whose company, Hawkstone, has been insouciantly polluting water supplies, with nary a care for the consequent death toll. After The East has hurled him and a colleague into one of their own polluted ponds to discover how they like it, the group is chased off by Hawkstone’s goons, a bullet from whom injures Izzy. Although Sarah/Jane succeeds in extracting the bullet from Izzy’s gut—under the guidance of Doc, whose hands are shaking too much to allow him to perform the operation himself—Izzy dies.
The group seems on the verge of splintering, but Benji insists on completing the third of the jams, which Sarah/Jane discovers to her horror involves her employer, Hiller–Brood; in fact, Benji and the others spotted her from the outset as an infiltrator and—although the love that has sprung up between her and Benji seems genuine on both sides—they’ve been godgaming her ever since she first appeared among them. She’s forced to choose between her loyalty to her boss and mentor Sharon (Clarkson) and her increasing conviction that The East are morally in the right—that the true ecoterrorists are not The East but the corporations who’re destroying environments and human lives on a massive scale for the sake of profits. (It’s ironic that this movie was made for Fox Searchlight, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch.)
Sarah (Brit Marling) pulls the bullet from Izzy’s intestine.
In the movie’s early stages much is made of the lifestyle known as freeganism, subsistence through the reclaiming and consumption of food that has been discarded even though there’s nothing wrong with it (the environmental benefits of freeganism are obvious); Batmanglij and Marling knew of what they wrote here, having practiced freeganism themselves for a while some years earlier.
The East was premiered at Sundance in early 2013 and, by the time of its limited release a few months later, had received a generally favorable reception at various prestigious festivals. On its commercial release the general consensus was that it was well made but there were, inevitably, criticisms that its message was naive and oversimplistic—accusations that are in a trivial sense true, because this is after all a movie rather than a philosophical treatise, but otherwise quite misguided in that it could hardly be possible for The East to be more naive and oversimplistic than the average Hollywood thriller. By the finish it has posed quite effectively the questions it sought to ask, and, because of its thriller format, it may bring them to the attention of audiences who have not been confronted by them before.
Marling’s good as always (and her seeming fascination for barfing is kept in check), although one can’t help feeling it’s perhaps time she began to increase her range a little in terms of both emotional register and choice of characters. The movie’s almost stolen out from under her by Page, whose nuanced portrayal of the little rich girl rebelling against her upbringing rings very true indeed. Another significant star of the movie is Vasyanov’s cinematography.
On Amazon.com: The East