Occasionally one comes across a deftly written film that when wielded by the correct director’s hand becomes enormously effective, transcending its fairly humble origins. The East
a thriller about eco-terrorism and the fraught moral territory on which it is based, was co-written by Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling and directed by Batmanglij with Marling starring. The film’s budget was a meager $6.5 million and yet every cent of that money has been used to create a thoroughly believable world where no one is quite what he or she seems.
The multi-talented Marling who also co-wrote and starred in the excellent Another Earth (reviewed previously in this column), plays Sarah, a former FBI agent who has decided to transfer to Hiller Brood, a shadowy, clearly nefarious private intelligence firm run by a formidable woman called Sharon, played to steely effect by Patricia Clarkson in a role that brings chills down your spine.
Always perfectly coiffed and impeccably dressed, we first see Sharon when Sarah goes in to meet her, expecting not to be chosen to go undercover for a coveted position that involves infiltrating an eco-terrorist organisation that calls itself ‘The East’. Equally unexpectedly Sharon, after critiquing Sarah’s weaker points (too bright, too egotistical), offers her the job. While it is never quite clear why Sarah, clearly brilliant, would leave the FBI for a nebulous institution like Hiller Brood, it is fairly obvious that she has that ugly thing called ambition coursing through her veins.
It is only when Sarah leaves her understanding and loving partner Tim (Josh Ritter) for the world of train-hopping and dumpster diving, in search of ‘The East’ that we get a sense of how resourceful and well trained she really is.
As Sarah becomes part of the group she slowly awakens to the inherent contradictions that are part and parcel of eco-terrorism. As her newfound team poisons pharmaceutical heads with their own flawed antibiotics, Sarah becomes increasingly caught up in the tenderness with which the group treat each other, particularly Benji (Alexander Skarsgård) and Izzy (Ellen Page), who are the incredibly charismatic leaders of the group.
The most compelling aspect of this story is the evolution and the moral dilemma of the main character who is played so very intelligently by Brit Marling. Supported by an excellent cast and based off of a truly horrifying reality, The East is a film that gets under your skin holding you rapt, asking questions of yourself as well as of the film’s utterly riveting characters.
While the film ends abruptly and some may feel cheated by this, I do not think that the Batmanglij and Marling duo were copping out when they wrote this ending. Instead, these young, thoughtful and wildly promising new filmmakers are trying to create a slightly different kind of cinema. The kind where their viewers are not force-fed and asked to judge, but rather left to wonder, for themselves, what might happen next to these very real people they just saw on screen and came to know in a few short hours.