“The East,” directed by Zal Batmanglij, tells the story of an operative who goes deep uncover and eventually begins to wonder which way is up. This is territory that has been covered many times before, but this particular situation is truly ambiguous and you can understand how any operative might have questions about loyalty. This is a very smart thriller full of convincing performances that will leave you with questions for a long time after seeing it.
Brit Marling, also a co-writer with Batmanglij, plays Jane a former FBI agent now working in the private sector for the intelligence firm Hiller Brood. As her cold-blooded superior (Patricia Clarkson) explains, their job is to assess threats to major corporations, and determine if certain anti-corporations groups are simple flies or black widows. Jane’s target is The East, a group who goes after wealthy executives of companies who harm the environment. Like Anonymous they post their exploits online, only they are not content with simply spreading messages. For the C.E.O of an oil company they break in his home and spread his product all over his expensive furniture. The question is, just how far are they willing to go for their convictions?
To determine this, the very dedicated Jane cuts all ties with the modern world and tries to be just the sort of person The East would want to recruit. She tells her boyfriend she is flying to Dubai, but she leaves the airport through a different exit and changes her appearance. After spending days living with homeless people and travelling in the back of a train like a hobo, she finally believes she has found a member and fakes an injury so he can take her to their lair deep in the woods.
Upon first encounter it is difficult to make out the group’s stance. They have an odd initiation ritual involving dinner and straightjackets, and seem to have a charismatic leader much like a cult. Yet the leader, Benji (Alexander Skarsgard), explicitly says he is not a cult leader and always listens to the opinions of other members such as Thomas (Toby Kebbell), a former doctor, and Izzie (Ellen Page), a dedicated member with very personal motivations for her actions. Together they bathe in a nearby river, eat food left over in dumpsters, and play versions of spin the bottle. They are one big happy family who occasionally plans a major strike at a corporation.
This is where things get tricky. One of their strikes involves infiltrating the party of a pharmaceutical and lacing their champagne with a drug the company made that may or may not have deadly side effects. Clearly illegal, but since the company was planning to sell the drug to the public, just how immoral is it? When Jane calls her superior, she is told to let things play out so she doesn’t break her cover. Plus, if the drug had any serious side effects, the company wouldn’t be selling it. Right?
Trying to determine if The East is made up of extreme activists or if they qualify as terrorists, Jane questions how far they are willing to go. The fact is they are not even sure themselves. In preparation for another strike, some members advocate for more serious actions, thinking violence will help get their message across. Benji calmly listens and asks for everyone to voice their opinions, even Jane.
Sympathizing with the people she infiltrates has always been a risk, but the more time Jane spends with The East the more she realizes things are not so exactly black and white. It doesn’t help that their targets are definitely no angels, and the filmmakers clearly have no sympathy for corporations who dump chemicals in rivers and live off the profits. However at the end of the day, the question is not whether or not cause of The East is just, but if the means justify the end.
Marling is excellent throughout, starting out as an operative completely dedicated to her job and eventually becoming a believer. There is great tension between her and Skargard as the idealistic leader. They spend most of the movie trying to read each other’s intentions and at times they themselves don’t seem to know how far they will go. “The East” asks a lot of smart questions about conviction and loyalty. As with most smart questions, there are no easy answers.
(“The East” is available on DVD and Blu-Ray and is streaming on Netflix.)