the east

Eco-terrorism is a tricky topic, one that conventional media have often had trouble tackling in any nuanced or accurate way. At the same time that awareness of the dangers humanity poses to the environment and the frightening malfeasance of corporations continues to grow, the stereotypes of tree huggers and hippies continue to persist. Typically, documentaries have fared best at looking at the conflict between environmentalism and big business. The East is not quite the big leap that the mainstream needs on this issue, but it’s a very good movie and an encouraging step forward.

Brit Marling, who also co-wrote the film, stars as Sarah, a newly-recruited agent for a private intelligence firm. Her first assignment is to infiltrate The East, a eco-terror cell that’s been making waves for their high-profile, elaborate attacks against corporations whose practices have had devastating effects on both people and ecosystems. The group is led by the charismatic, Jesus-y Benji (Alexander Skarsgård), with the feisty Izzy (Ellen Page) as his right-hand woman. As spies are wont to do in movies, Sarah gradually finds herself falling under the sway of The East’s cause and Benji’s charms, even as their actions approach the extreme.

The East is progressive in several ways. Rarely does a mainstream film so unambiguously depict the callousness of corporate practices that value profit over the welfare of the public. Even more rarely does one treat ideas like freeganism with anything other than derision. And the movie handles its female characters so that they are equal to the males in such an effortless way that it puts normal Hollywood fare to shame.

On top of all that, it’s an excellently produced action thriller, easily on stylistic par with any Paul Greengrass picture (which is especially impressive considering its relatively small 6.5 million dollar budget). The grungy headquarters of The East and the slick opulence of upper class gatherings are drawn in vivid detail, and the editing propels events forward with a harrowing edge. There’s a palpable sense of danger whenever Sarah plunges into this outlaw fringe.

Marling continues to prove herself as one of the most capable actresses on the rise. She exudes professional competence even as Sarah’s moral resolve in her mission deteriorates. As Benji, Skarsgård at first seems to be just doing a Charles Manson riff, but he soon manifests a fascinating magnetism that stems from broody thoughtfulness. And Page finally goes back to the intensity that made her first explode onto the scene with Hard Candy nearly ten years ago. And the supporting cast, from Patricia Clarkson as Sarah’s ice-cold handler to Toby Kebbell as the solemn Doc, are all great as well.

Where The East falters is in going into some strange realms of almost Dan Brown-level cartoonishness. Every member of The East is either a rich kid turned against their parents or a direct victim of one of the companies they’re going after. The movie seems to still play to some archetypes even as it breaks others. The “jams” (a term which reeks of inauthenticity) are all patently ludicrous in conception, and only play well because the execution of their staging is so tense. The depiction of The East seems to vacillate between realistic and ludicrous. They’re sympathetic characters pulling off Joker-level schemes. The utterly sincere gravitas with which the movie treats this silly setup nearly wrecks all of its credibility.

Worse, though, is the ending. After wrestling with its moral ideas in some interesting ways, The East settles on a rather weaksauce conclusion: if people only knew what was going on, things would change, surely! In our culture, “awareness” is too often pushed as a solution in of itself and not just the first step towards affecting change, and it’s disappointing that the film perpetuates that idea. It’s so strange how the film is in some ways level-headed while at the same time indulging in stunning naivete. Compared to the story for Marling and director/writer Zal Batmanglij’s previous film, Sound of My Voice, it’s far less nuanced.

The East was initially one of my favorites out of all I’d seen at Sundance this year. While it’s diminished somewhat in my mind since, it’s still an excellently-made movie. It’s unlikely to spark any meaningful conversations about eco-terrorism beyond “man, effin’ hippies” or “man, effin corporations,” surrounded by murmurs of assent, but it uses that topic as the framework for some terrific suspense and character work.