Zal Batmanglij’s socio-political thriller The East opens with sinister anti-capitalist narration over slam-cut images of an eco-terrorist infiltration of an oil magnate’s mansion. As grainy surveillance shows viscous crude flowing out of air ducts in the house and down the walls, the narrator promises that those who have become wealthy by exploiting their fellow humans and the planet will personally experience the sort of pain they have caused others. The avengers call themselves “the East.”
We learn this as the film cuts to another scene, where we observe former FBI agent Sarah Moss (Brit Marling), a whip-smart undercover operative in the employ of private intelligence firm Hiller Brood. The company is hired by other corporations to gain intel on and perhaps neutralize activist and outlaw groups that represent threats to their bottom line. It’s helmed by a conniving, polished executive (Patricia Clarkson) who approaches even assignment interviews as a psychological test of the pertinent espionage skills of her youthful go-getter agents. But Sarah is damn good, and so she gets the gig of tracking down and infiltrating the East.
Leaving her townhouse in Georgetown and earnest boyfriend (Jason Ritter) behind, Sarah dyes her hair, dons runaway clothes and an alias (“Jane”), and floats among drifters until she’s initiated into the tightknit target group, currently squatting in a burned-out old manor in the backwoods. Benji (Alexander Skarsgård) shepherds the motley crew; he’s a charismatic type with the hollowed-out yet driven eyes of a religious cult leader, and, at least at first, the hirsute appearance of a hermit saint.
Benji’s followers comprise a group who ideology and aims defy simple labeling. The East’s outlook is essentially anarchist in the classic definition, although that term has become so associated with shadowy black bloc protest movements and sullen teenagers with graffiti habits that it is of limited use in this case. There is also something of the hippie utopian collectivist about them, an idealism in their mode of communal, anti-technological living, and freeganism (they only eat food that has been discarded or otherwise acquired without monetary exchange).
The East’s members resemble the much-maligned hipster subculture in nature and even in specifics; they certainly share a fondness for facial hair, retro fashions, and faux-hillbilly bluegrass music. But their commitment to their cause is extreme. This can be seen most clearly in their terrorist projects called “jams,” seeking to rebuke the harmful practices of large corporations by inflicting consequences of those practices directly on the well-heeled business leaders who are usually insulated from such effects and reap only considerable rewards from their application.
Still, the film complicates the righteousness of the East’s mission. In one case, the group’s target is born of a rather personal vendetta, namely, the cause of hand tremors exhibited by dedicated group member Doc (Toby Kebbell). The first jam Sarah witnesses is the East’s attempt to poison the grandees of the pharmaceutical giant Hiller Brood with an under-regulated super-drug that can cause degenerative nerve damage. As Hiller Brood’s amoral conduct also begins to alienate our heroine, she gravitates more and more to the East’s way of thinking, and not just because of her simmering attraction to Benji.
Batmanglij and Marling (who cowrote the script) render the belief system of this activist-terrorist underground accessible to audiences by grounding it in personal grievances. But this ostensible emotional connection for viewers diminishes The East’s depiction of the intellectual integrity of the anarchist collective’s anti-establishment ideology. Insomuch as firm principles drive the activities of the central figures of the East, those principles are undergirded (and undermined) by wounded resentment and personal vendettas.
Consider Izzy (Ellen Page), introduced as the requisite untrusting, uncompromising member. Does she conceive her own jam in order to expose the corporate malfeasance of a chemical company or because her daddy (its CEO) didn’t love her or her mother enough? We are left with the strong feeling that the former proceeds directly from the latter, and that her fellows have similar reasons for radicalizing: the sting of Doc’s personal losses due to the drug conglomerate’s crimes is not soothed by the group’s crime in reply, and Benji’s motivation for founding the group in the first place has more to do with compensating for a missing family life than with political imperatives.
To be generous, this may be the film’s point, that the shaggy extremist dropouts are produced by privileged upper-crust backgrounds. In this milieu, only those who have been inculcated into the hegemonic ideology are able to inculcate others into the ideology of its negation. Sarah means to be pointed when she asks Benji why self-righteousness always accompanies resistance movements. But a more pointed inquiry would be to ask why the resistance need always be led by defectors from the very privileged class whose prerogatives of power are being resisted.
Whether designed as a critique or not, The East’s subtext of the young and privileged exploring extreme countercultural practices as little more than an indulgent experiment or as a briefly-struck pose of indignant rebellion transfers to the film’s text. This sense of trying on a certain mask before discarding it follows from The East’s inspiration, a summer of train-hopping and freeganism experienced by Batmanglij and Marling in their less-successful younger years.
Whatever the politics of this subculture’s representation in The East, the skilled Batmanglij conjures up an often fascinating underworld, even if it never feels quite credible. The grafting of boilerplate espionage thriller elements onto this rich and intriguing foundation increases the tone of dramatized unreality that permeates the film, to its ultimate detriment. Maybe this is why the ideology of the East is not entirely convincing: the film that exhibits it isn’t entirely convincing either.