We are born with a chance
This is the moment whereupon we can all say, in reference to Brit Marling, “We knew her when.” The East is the third film she’s both written and starred in, and to call it “ambitious” would be similar to calling the collected works of Franz Kafka a “decent read.”
The East, to me, felt a bit like a reunion with old friends. It’s been ages since I’ve seen Ellen Page in a prominent and layered role (and not just because I don’t care about Woody Allen), and Marling’s Another Earth seems like it happened years ago. Actually, it did. The film is Marling and director Zal Batmanglij’s second stab at a story centered around a cult-like group, but this one doesn’t rely on concept and a “twist” ending.
The duo’s newest effort follows Sarah Moss (Marling), the cover name for Jane, an agent working for a private intelligence firm connected to the FBI. Sarah is contracted by her tight-fisted employer, Sharon (Patricia Clarkson) to infiltrate The East, an “eco-terrorist” group, who have promised to “jam” several multi-billion-dollar corporations in order to make them see the error of their ways. But the people Sarah encounters are not quite the evil Emmanuel Goldstein boogeymen the popular media paint them as. Led to The East’s HQ by Luca (Shiloh Fernandez), Sarah meets the entire group, all of whom use pseudonyms: Izzy (Ellen Page) is aggressive, distrustful, and extremely passionate about her work; Benji (Alexander Skarsgård) is gently manipulative and keeps the hair and beard of an anarchist Jesus; Eve (Hillary Baack) is deaf and immediately bonds with Sarah due to their shared skill of sign language, but as far as her role in the group, doesn’t get to do much other than act as sentinel; the aptly-named Doc (Toby Kebbell) is a former med student who has seizures due to side effects of an anti-malaria drug he prescribed to himself and his sister; Thumbs (Aldis Hodge) is a hardhead; Tess (Danielle Macdonald) is an incomparable hacker and someone you’d want as your best friend. Sarah spends three weeks with the group and practices “Freeganism,” known in some circles as “dumpster-diving,” which entails eating nothing but food discarded by others in order to illustrate the wastefulness of modern society. The practice involves every aspect of living on the grit of society and ensuring that everything is free – people share services, ideas, food, and so on.
There’s a formula for films like this. That is to say, films that involve a cop or fed infiltrating a group of criminals in order to take them down. You know the formula; it’s mostly the same as the one used for heist films. Usually, the mole ends up getting made at a critical moment after bonding with a certain member of the group (see Reservoir Dogs, City On Fire, The Departed, etc.). Whether or not the infiltrator switches sides is variable. Here, yes, the members of The East abide by the tropey “each member has a special skill” convention, but in this case – a moneyless group living in a torched hotel building and working with a skeleton crew – it makes sense that the essential personnel would be varied. Also, yes, of course Sarah switches sides, because exploiting deadly capitalist practices, including a poisoned water supply that results in brain tumors in children, is what good guys do. However, Brit Marling wrote this, so it’s not as simple as all that.
Sarah’s interactions with the group are organic from the outset, and the wonder of it is that we don’t know how genuine she’s being in her spoken dialogue, since she’s undercover. Content with revealing the true identities of The East to her boss, who has every intention of locking them up forever, Sarah still seems to truly care about them as individuals, which makes her both the perfect agent and a dangerous liability. She immediately convinces Eve to leave the group, and she does it at a moment when she really doesn’t have to – she could sell the latter out just like she plans to do with the rest. But no, not this hero. She knows the group is using Eve, and the spot Eve leaves would be a major empty hole in the movie if it weren’t for the fact that Sarah fills her role. Because she’s human before she is the embodiment of her work, Sarah sympathizes with the situation of Doc, who can barely perform his work anymore due to the severity of his Parkinsons-like symptoms, and even tries to befriend Izzy, who immediately wants her to leave. The group fashions Benji as its leader despite his insistence that everyone has an equal say – remember how “long cons” work? The conman involves the victim by making them think the entire thing was their idea? Yeah.
One of the film’s many centerpieces is a “spin-the-bottle” scene, which according to Marling and Batmanglij, was entirely improvised. During this, the collective, including Sarah, spin a bottle and ask the chosen person for some kind of favor that will allow the two to know each other better. For example, “Can I shake your hand?” The other can answer, “Yes,” or alternatively, suggest something lesser but related, such as “How about we high-five instead?” The scene, which features a kiss between Brit Marling and Ellen Page, achieves a true openness and intimacy barely ever seen onscreen. Moreover, none of this is done for titillation (an idea reinforced by the fact that Izzy’s suggestion that she and Sarah kiss was apparently ad-libbed). Men also kiss men in the scene, and Skarsgård’s character does some other interesting things. In a lesser film, this scene and another wherein the characters bathe each other in a lake, may have become one big orgy. But it is this very restraint that makes the scenes intimate, so that when Sarah removes a browning apple from a garbage can and devours it in front of her boss, it’s real. She’s been there. We know it, we’ve seen it, and we’ve been there with her.
The East is a movie about saying “Enough.” It was filmed concurrently with the BP oil spill and the dawn of Occupy. It deals with the world as we know it now, wherein the fear of impermanence causes us to consume, throw away, and forget in excess. It’s about omnisexuality and openness. It’s about how quickly we’ve absorbed into our very beings things that we not only don’t need, but that have only been around for a few years (YouTube, iPhones, the current DNA of social media, and so on). It encourages activism, but opposes militancy, and never presumes to tell anyone what to do. This isn’t to say that it doesn’t hold its moral ground – there’s a very clear anti-apathy theme – but instead of taking a “side,” it brashly suggests that we are all on the side of humanity and Earth, that all of us should take a look at the injustices going on – the atrocities of billion-dollar companies and conglomerates, the gross unbalance of accountability, the mistreatment of wildlife, the masses’ acceptance of a world in which we worship pictures of photoshopped women and men – and be disheartened by the status quo.
Go in cold.
The East (2013); written by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij; directed by Zal Batmanglij; starring Brit Marling, Ellen Page, Alexander Skarsgård, and Toby Kebbell.
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