When Sarah (Brit Marling) gets a pair of Birkenstock shoes from her ice cool uber-boss Sharon (Patricia Clarkson), she knows that this is her shot at the big time – a chance to be a real player in the shady world of corporate private intelligence. Soon enough she’s lying goodbye to her boyfriend Tim (Jason Ritter) at the airport, dying her hair in the bathroom and coming out another door – she’s not going abroad, she’s going deep undercover to find out about The East, a group of media-savvy anarchists who are targeting major corporations.
Soon enough she’s hanging out with hippies, travelers and crusties, but then she meets Luca (Shiloh Fernandez), who takes her to a secret hideout in the woods – the home of the charismatic Benji (Alexander Skarsgard), suspicious Izzy (Ellen Page), sympathetic Doc (Brit actor Toby Kebbell) and others – all of whom have a taste for real revenge and, despite the cult-like air and some bizarre “bonding exercises,” are no lentil-chomping dropouts: they have some serious “jams” in the planning.
The first corporate victims get a dose of their own medicine – literally – and then a pair of industry bigwigs are forced to take a swim in their own polluted lake. It’s an eye for an eye, and though Sarah is quickly getting close to calling in the FBI, she’s found a bond with these people – and even has some sympathy with their ideas, and the evidence she sees that made them come to the conclusion their attacks are the only way the public will take notice. It helps of course that she’s attracted to Benji, but when one of the jams costs the life of one of the members, the group goes their separate ways – but you just know Sarah is going to be asked to go back under again. Only now does she want to go back for the right reasons?
Marling – who also co-wrote and co-produced this with director Batmanglij (and has written two other films including the cult hit Another Earth) – is clearly a roaring talent, and here she inhabits the role of the cold-hearted, all-business operative well, perhaps too well, as this is rather a cold movie, the only person you ever really feel remotely sympathetic to being the shaky-handed, brain-damaged Doc. Also, Sarah doesn’t really have as much at stake – or has lost as much – as everyone else, which makes her harder to care about.
It’s also perhaps a slight disappointment when it emerges that the jams are all targeted at the parents of The East members; it’s spoiled rich kid revenge to a greater extent then, something that explains the reason they can afford high-tech gear, a nice Mercedes and walking around money: high speed web access can’t be found when you go dumpster-diving.
That said, the film manages to walk the line well in what’s a controversial set-up. It doesn’t fall back on such easy clichés as explosions or choose a lazy reliance on sexual jealousy/romance re: Benji, but whether it will have you cheering for revolution when you see one of the victims of their jams – a cameo by Julia Ormond, who looks so extraordinarily like Marling that I thought that would be the late twist – is another matter.
Yes the chemical companies will undoubtedly and happily sacrifice all of us in return for profit, but just as tragic is the fact that we continue to elect corrupt politicians who are enslaved to the very same companies, and so do nothing about it. And as we know, resorting to terrorism only leads to more dead and wounded, and who needs environmental protection anyway?
15A (see IFCO website for details)
The East is released on 28th June 2013