In Zal Batmanglij’s humourless and fairly daft – but commendably gripping – thriller The East, co-writer Brit Marling stars as spunky former FBI agent Sarah Moss, now employed by slick anti-corporate terrorism firm Hiller-Brood. Moss, a good Christian girl, seems stifled by her ordered life (flash apartment, blandly handsome boyfriend etc.), so it’s no huge surprise when she becomes more than a little fascinated by the inner workings of The East, the grubby anarchist cell she’s tasked to infiltrate by her boss, Sharon (Particia Clarkson, here afforded the full, high-end businesswoman glam treatment).
The East, who operate out of a mysterious base in the woods, are a motley crew of crusty freegans united by both their hatred of big corporations and their plot-enabling individual personal grievances against ruthless millionaires. There’s charismatic leader Benji (Alexander Skarsgård), whose serene air and straggly beard/hair combo give him an irresistibly Jesus-via-Kings of Leon vibe – convenient as Moss might be in the market for a new Messiah; the spiky Izzy (Ellen Page), who doesn’t much trust Sarah; and Doc (Toby Kebbell), a kindly, bespectacled figure with a mysterious shaking disorder. There’s also Adam Ant lookalike Luca (Shiloh Fernandez), whose own superpower seems to be eye make-up that magically reapplies itself when the camera isn’t looking. Oh, and there’s a token angry black guy, too (Aldis Hodge). Moss dips in and out of the group to report intel back to her employers, but the film’s hook comes from the gradual clouding of her moral landscape and subsequent creeping discovery that, you know, these goddamn hippies might well have a point. The stakes rise exponentially as Moss begins to play a more hands-on role in the group’s series of “jams” – daring acts of anti-corporate rebellion.
The East is, plot-wise, pretty far-fetched – especially toward the end – but certainly articulates in skilfully consumable, if obvious, genre-cinema language a political dialogue germane to today's activist youth; its anti-big pharma subject matter alone should prove resonant enough with a socially conscious, engaged audience. Yet the film chiefly is enjoyable for Marling’s central performance. She gives the strong sense of a woman tempted not just ethically, but also sensually, by an alternative lifestyle. In this respect it echoes the core rural freedom v. conformist constriction dilemma of Sean Durkin’s darker-hued Martha Marcy May Marlene. Crucially, too, Marling is not afraid to come across as brusque or unlikeable (see: her character's arrogant impetuosity, and shabby treatment of her clueless boyfriend); her flintiness makes for a compelling central character and provides The East the hard edge it requires to transcend its sillier components.
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