Although a very professionally made and high quality movie with a low-fi, slow-burn thriller style, there are two things you can’t help but think of while watching ”The East”.
The first is a sense of anachronism in the premise – a group of off-the-grid anarchist activists launching missions of low-key, anti-corporate terrorism in order to smash the state. It’s a struggle no less urgent in the modern world of ever-expanding corporate complicity in many of the world’s ills, but it feels like an idea for a movie that should have come out 15 years ago when the Battle of Seattle/X Files conspiracies had the imagination of popular culture in their grip.
The second is a creeping sensation you’ve seen this infiltrator-goes-native story set in more time periods, against more backdrops and on more planets than you can shake a stick at (”Avatar”, ”Ferngully”, ”Dances With Wolves”, ”Pocahontas”, etc).
But ”The East” has plenty of good points, not the least of which is the presence of Brit Marling. It’s refreshing enough for a film like this to have a female protagonist, but Marling is one of cinema’s brightest new stars – one who’s used smarts and talent to forge her path in Hollywood rather than taking her clothes off.
She’s joined by an awesome cast of female co-stars including Patricia Clarkson as her boss and erstwhile antagonist, Ellen Page as a co-conspirator and newcomer Danielle Macdonald as another member of the group. Needless to say, ”The East” passes the Bechdel test with more or less flying colours, and that’s without a wedding scene, internship at a fashion magazine or funky New York loft apartment anywhere.
Marling is Sarah, an operative for a private corporate security company whose latest assignment is to go underground and try to infiltrate The East, an anarchist collective that poses stunts like breaking into the homes of corporate executives to protest the actions of their companies’ activities.
She finds her way to the extremely guarded group, living in a house in the woods with no power or running water, looking like homeless people and planning their next jam (their word for a protect action).
When the team scrub up and pose as waiters at a retreat serving a gathering of self-congratulating pharmaceutical executives, the plan is to feed them their own drugs without them knowing, products proven to have made people sick.
Sarah tries to put a stop to it without blowing her cover, and when she only half succeeds and reports back to her soft-spoken but uncompromising CEO, Sarah gets a shock. She assumed her work was to stop people getting hurt, but when Sharon (Clarkson) coldly informs her the victims aren’t their clients, Sarah searches her soul and wonders what she’s working for – the right thing or the money.
The group draws her more into their confidence and she learns more about their enigmatic leader Benji (Skarsgård), and when things turn deadly it only makes Sarah more conflicted about the undercover life she’s adopted and the life of boardrooms, investigation reports and the sweet boyfriend that she’s left behind.
The performances are great all round and there’s a pervading sense of danger – almost horror – you wouldn’t expect from a movie about anti-capitalist protesters. But despite everything being in the right place – from Marling’s script (which she co-wrote with director Zal Batmanglij) to the palpable sense of clashing loyalties – there’s something about it that feels distinctly vintage.