The East is a suspenseful techno-thriller that takes a resourceful woman and forces her to toe the line between a dangerous anarchist collective and her far more dangerous big-business employers. She infiltrates anti-corporate cells, revealing their plans to their prospective victims, using her government training for entirely capitalist means. Countries no longer can afford the best spies, the film says, only Exxon can.
Brit Marling stars as that spy, her sharp features and starkly unemotional performance rendering her character purposefully unreadable. Her Jane is a willful blank, a living corporate drone, and the titular collective is her latest mission. Yet the blankness isn't detachment, and she's not lost. She's deep into the character's head, still able to sell us on the lived-in details, still able to convince us of the minutiae. That's because she wrote the film, too.
Sharing script duties with director Zac Batmanglij, she's crafted a story that manages to make gestures at a lot of big ideas without ever committing to just one of them. The East, the collective Jane worms her way into, spends their time perfecting and performing "jams," operations intended to shock and harm corporate bigwigs they've singled out for unaccounted-for, usually environmental, crimes. Jane's torn between recognizing their idealistic naiveté and admiring their openhearted group dynamics, torn between her professional mission for corporate security and their pleas towards punishing the immoral, and torn between believing in money and believing in anything else.
Disguising herself as the punkish Sarah Moss, she finds the collective after spotting a man wearing a talisman linked to the East. Slicing her own wrist with a can, she gambles on their humanist tendencies. Unofficial kingpin Benji (Alexander Skarsgard, disguised behind a Grizzly Adams beard,) falls for her ploy, treating her wound and indoctrinating her into the group via some spectacularly out-there New Age thought exercises (they involve dinner, strait-jackets, and spoons.)
What really stands out about Marling and her cohorts is the way they try to normalize the esoteric culture they depict. The filmmakers are as focused on entertainment as they are on art, but the commercial aspects don't arise out of vapidity, nor the more ambitious aspects out of false grandeur. They trust the audience enough to leave most of the social commentary to the subtext. Here, Marling and Batmanglij work in set pieces, movie stars, and — more than in their previous film, Sound of My Voice — concessions to standard narrative storytelling. They're auditioning for something more, something bigger. They have ambitions to play to, and convert, the masses.
That's what makes The East feel so dangerous, as well as what makes it feel so disappointing when it isn't. There's a palpable, invigorating rage in the early imagery: crude oil leaking violently from vents into a CEO's opulent home, Big Pharma executives forced to literally have a taste of their own medicine. Batmanglij expertly reappropriates and mish-mashes elements of videos and threats we've seen from the Occupy movement, the Anonymous collective, and international terrorist cells into one menacing, morally ambiguous montage. It feels alive, real, like something that really could go viral.
But the film trails off, losing itself in its own mythology. It trades its vigor for something smaller and easier-to-contain: a relationship drama and a coming-of-age tale. Once we realize this is just a movie about a woman developing a conscience, with Benji and his crew a MacGuffin, and the social commentary mere texture, there's nothing left to discover. The film begins inspired and angry, yet ends on a calculated, ingratiating note. Marling and Batmanglij are as conflicted as their main character. As filmmakers, they're going to have to decide if they're classicists, or revolutionaries.