Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij’s provocative The East is a breathless, creepy, singular entry into the “spy thriller” genre. It can easily hold its own amongst films like The Bourne Identity and The Silence of the Lambs, in no small part due to the tireless work of the duo at the helm. Already known for their breakout hit, The Sound of My Voice, writer-actor Brit Marling and writer-director Zal Batmanglij met as undergraduates at Georgetown University and went on to subvert the conventional notions of the Hollywood filmmaking machine. There’s a happy irony in the subversion, as that theme runs strong in The East, about a former FBI agent (Marling) infiltrating an anarchist eco-terrorist collective.

the East

the East

Marling and Batmanglij based the idea for the film on their experience in the summer of 2009, spent living off the grid and outside the boundaries of convention. Inspired by “Buy Nothing Day,” the pair embarked on a “Buy Nothing Summer:” hopping trains, living in tent communities and abandoned buildings with freegans and anarchists who had rejected conventionality.

The textural details of such a life are part of the visceral experience of The East, wherein Marling’s Sarah Moss joins a collective in the woods living in an abandoned house, dumpster diving for food, and taking back the neglected spaces on the fringes of society. Headed by the charismatic Benji (Alexander Skarsgard), the collective embarks on subversive “jams,” high profile stunts meant to get the attention of those who have willfully taken advantage of the loopholes in our system: pharmaceutical companies selling a drug with known horrific side effects, energy companies knowingly polluting water in the communities they serve. Sarah must decide what and who’s right, and it’s that ambiguity that’s so unsettling.

“It provokes a conversation people are eager to have,” Marling said of the film. She’s found that upon viewing, audiences’ eyes are opened to the sorts of injustices and wastefulness The East rebels against in the film. And of the atrocities portrayed in the film – it opens on footage of an oil spill – Batmanglij said, “we never exaggerated or dramatized anything.” The fictional companies being “jammed” in the film are all based on “ripped from the headlines” corporate scandals.

It’s not just the viewers, but also the actors who found themselves suddenly mobilized and energized by the “cause.” Ellen Page plays Izzy, a thoroughly passionate member of the collective fully devoted to revealing and rectifying the injustices she sees all around her. Page, who has a little-known background in permaculture and sustainable development, was impassioned in her discussion of the film.

“There’s so much waste in the system. And to close the holes the loop, it just makes so much sense,” she said.

The East cast members at Paramount Theatre on March 16, 2013 in Austin, Texas.

While The East’s actions might at first seem radical- dumpster diving is essentially eating trash- they are also inherently logical; stores often throw out perfectly good food because new shipments have arrived, sell-by dates have passed, or there’s something wrong with the packaging. Page’s righteous energy invigorated the entire cast and crew.

Alexander Skarsgard was in awe of her commitment to her role; she shot her most demanding scene on day 1. “We all watched her and we thought, “OK, we’re really doing this.” There was a true sense of commitment and comradery amongst the actors and the crew in filming The East, and it’s apparent in the viewing.

Skarsgard is magnetic as Benji, but it is Marling who truly shines as the stoic, yet somewhat fragile Sarah. Marling’s Sarah joins a growing list of strong, brilliant, but often flawed female leads: Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty, Claire Danes in Homeland. “It’s no accident, that there are these waves of women,” Marling said of the serendipity of Sarah’s debut right on the heels of these other fierce women on screen.

“Before this, it was Clarice Starling, and that was what? 20 years ago?” Batmanglij said, referring to Jodi Foster’s classic role in The Silence of the Lambs. “We were just writing in the dark. There was no Hunger Games [in 2009], and so you just have to hope you’re going to hit on something.”

“We don’t own ideas, I think that ideas are just floating out there,” Marling said, “and we’re sort of just grasping at them, as if with a net.” She and Batmanglij managed to harness just the right one at the right time in conceiving of Sarah in The East.

Ultimately, “We just took the time we’re living in and placed it within the thriller genre,” Batmanglij said. The resulting work is provocative without being political, and thoughtful without being preachy. And it’s a great movie.