Sarah (Brit Marling) works for a private security firm in Washington DC that gathers intelligence against eco-terrorists. Her agency is employed by big corporations under fire for endangering the health of people and/or the environment. This includes industries like oil refineries, pharmaceuticals, etc. Sarah is selected as an undercover agent to infiltrate an anarchist group known as The East. Posing as one of them she endeavors to gain knowledge and report back to her bosses at the bureau. The subsequent information will be used to make arrests.
A majority of the cast have fully developed personalities. What makes The East so captivating is the perceptive screenplay. Credit star Brit Marling who co-writes and produces with director Zal Batmanglij, the same duo responsible for 2011’s Sound of My Voice. As our lead protagonist Sarah, she’s an appealing presence, smart and attractive, capable of handling herself in rough situations . She prays for guidance to do what is right and acts with her conscience. We experience the faction through her eyes, judging everything she experiences. It’s a carefully modulated window into a world not many have experienced. As she extracts information / develops friendships, these characters become complex individuals. Alexander Skarsgård is their cultish leader. To emphasize the point, he sports Jesus-like hair and beard. We’re first introduced to him at a dinner scene involving straitjackets. It’s a memorable introduction to his methods. He has earned a dedicated loyalty from his followers. These include Doc (Toby Kebbell) and Izzy (Ellen Page), both of which offer detailed backstories to explain why they’re part of this collective.
When I originally saw the trailer for The East, I figured it would be a “horror” film recounting violent revenge “The East” exacted on evil companies they determined should be taken to task. But the way the plot unfolds it’s more of a character examination balancing the principles of environmental terrorists with those of a corporate spy concerned about their “eye for an eye” mentality. It’s natural to champion the environment, but hardly anyone would go to the limits of these radicals. We see these activists operate on the far end on the protester spectrum. They break into a gasoline mogul’s mansion and dump crude oil through the air-conditioning vents. Later they lace the champagne of employees at a drug manufacturer’s party with their own questionable medication. Their extreme behavior is not something most people would advocate. Yet we grow to understand their motivations and their viewpoint. On this converse side, we also appreciate Sarah’s dilemma as she starts to sympathize with her criminal zealots and their alarming objectives. There are some issues. You might say that Brit Marling as Sarah ingratiates herself into the group a bit too easily. Also, the narrative is tidied up at the conclusion in a couple hastily presented scenes that don’t do the nuanced story any favors. But more often than not this portrait is a brilliant study that handles multiple characters with deft and precision. Few films have accomplished this so skillfully in 2013.