‘The East’ examines corporate callousness in espionage thriller

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After the BP oil spill and the recent Occupy movement, people have become increasingly enraged at the ruthless prioritization of profit over probity. In the upcoming espionage thriller, “The East,” a group of eco-terrorists takes it upon itself to make sure no corporate crime goes unpunished. Gritty and thought-provoking, “The East” has an authenticity that goes beyond the perennial spy flick and stirs up some very timely questions about our culture of consumers and corporations.

The film stars Brit Marling, who also has credits as a co-writer and producer, as Jane Owen, an undercover agent who has just made it from the FBI into the elite private sector firm Hiller Brood. Jane is handpicked by her new devilishly glamorous boss, Sharon, to infiltrate the apocryphal vigilante group known as the East, feared and mythicized for its punishment-fits-the-crime tactics. Sharon keeps Jane’s focus on her mission, but her gaze is diverted by the fiercely passionate collective and its magnetic leader Benji, played by Alexander Skarsgard.

Director Zal Batmanglij insists, “This is a movie you should see with someone you’re sleeping with. This is the kind of movie you should wake up and start talking about the next day.” And it definitely will start conversations. “The East” presents the old eye-for-an-eye adage in the context of recent ecological disasters and points out the flaws of both the criminals and the criminal-punishers. Batmanglij talks about “how many successful, powerful, rich people are insulated from real life or from the destruction they’re causing” and how this parallels America itself. “The East” presents viewers with the hellfire of immensely stirring rhetoric and then captures what is there when the smoke clears.

Batmanglij acknowledges the fact that the film does not proffer his own stances on the issue, saying, “I think it’d be masturbatory if our opinions were the be-all end-all of the story.” As Jane vacillates between her career and a life impassioned by a higher cause, her struggles evoke the paralysis felt by the modern world in the face of the larger-than-life issues we have inherited and created. “I am very frustrated when I go to the computer,” Batmanglij relates. “And I feel like I read these stories, and I just don’t know how to make sense of the world news … it’s a very strange time to be alive.” The film makes it through nearly to end without being preachy but does give in to didacticism before finishing, which is somewhat disappointing if not expected.

Listen to an interview with director Zal Batmanglij here:

A major draw of “The East” is the captivating nature of the group itself. Squatting in a burned-down manor in the woods, the collective is rich with backstory and ritualism. A few scenes have a specificity which draws on Batmanglij’s and Marling’s own experiences living as freegans, not buying anything and getting three square meals from dumpster-diving for an entire summer. While the fringe nature of the group in question makes it susceptible to getting culture-mined for its shock value, Batmanglij’s and Marling’s firsthand experiences kept the film grounded in the genuine.

Though the film portrayed the freegan lifestyle convincingly, many of the characters’ actions were not nearly as well thought out. There are sequences in which viewers might feel as though they are missing something. Batmanglij says he chose to keep Benji’s and Jane’s characters mysterious because “that mystery compels us to stay more invested in the story.” Unfortunately, the film could not pull off every subtlety, as logical connections failed to materialize.

The film is bound to captivate, however, as it is timely to an uncanny degree. The scene of the East drenching an oil baron’s home in petroleum after he left the scene of an oil spill unscathed was written only a couple of weeks before the 2010 BP oil spill. Batmanglij said that following the occurrence, he and Marling “felt this fire under (their) asses, and then a couple weeks before (they) started shooting, Occupy happened.”

The film is further bolstered by compelling performances from Toby Kebbell and Ellen Page. Kebbell’s portrayal of Doc, a Stanford medical school graduate brain-damaged by the fine print of prescription pharmaceuticals, succeeds at telling a tragic storyline, and Ellen Page plays the fierce Izzy well. Batmanglij says, “I think she took all her rage that she feels about all the bad things that are happening in Canada and the States and the way we are destroying ourselves and the environment – she took that rage, and she channeled it in an unbridled way.”

However, what the film had in provocation and solid supporting performances, it lacked in plot development, which is at times sloppy and threadbare. Overlooking these drawbacks, when the film premieres in the Bay Area in June, it will definitely propel Batmanglij and Marling beyond a niche indie film festival exposure and leave audiences with a lot to think about.

Contact Lu Han at [email protected].

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