As director and star respectively, as well as co-writers, Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling are proving an effective team. After delivering the haunting Sound of My Voice, they’re back with The East, a provocative exploration of political activism, corporate negligence and violent protest.
Marling plays Sarah, an ambitious and driven professional who takes an undercover assignment for a corporate intelligence firm after an anarchist group named The East filled the summer home of an oil tycoon with his own oil. Her job is to infiltrate the group and learn who their next targets will be, passing the information on to her handler Sharon (Patricia Clarkson), who can then sell her services to the companies about to be attacked.
Sarah is fiercely committed and jumps right in, wasting no time in train-hopping and dumpster-diving until eventually a run in with the cops and a self-inflicted wound land her back at The East’s forest headquarters. There she meets Doc (Toby Kebbell), a former doctor whose brain has been damaged by prescription antibiotics. He brings her into the group and introduces her to their leader Benji (Alexander Skarsgard).
Despite disagreeing with their violent, ‘eye for an eye’ tactics, Sarah can’t help but be taken in by the ethos of the collective as they open her eyes to the corporate atrocities her employer seeks to protect. Before long, she’s given a key role in their latest “jam”, an attack on the head of a pharmaceutical company that sees her two sides begin to clash. There are potentially fatal consequences for the corporate head honchos but she can’t expose herself as an intruder.
After her magnetic performance as a mysterious cult leader in Sound of My Voice, Marling is again very strong. Her performance is understated and subtle as she portrays the multiple faces Sarah has to keep up for her boyfriend, her boss and her new found family.
The supporting cast are also strong, particularly Skarsgard as the quietly charismatic Benji and Ellen Page as Izzy, one of the more radical members of the group with her own particular reasons for being there. Patricia Clarkson, as ever, is fantastic and the choice to make the handler-spy relationship an all female affair brings an interesting twist to a well worn trope.
With both Sound of My Voice and The East, Batmanglij and Marling explore the idea of an outsider going undercover to infiltrate a certain group but where the earlier film dealt with ideas of faith and trust, this one raises far more questions about our effect on the environment, the responsibilities of huge corporations to clean up after themselves and the justification of violence.
The similarities with Sound of My Voice continue as Batmanglij creates some scenes of real suspense, particularly a late night trip to a river during the film’s third act which have deadly consequences. He also creates some striking and unique imagery, like the initiation dinner the group has for Sarah, involving straight-jackets and large spoons.
If The East has a bum note, it’s the inclusion of a potential romance between Benji and Sarah that feels rote in an otherwise potent, thoughtful and well-paced thriller.
Read our review with The East director Zal Batmanglij.