The East is one of those films that tries to be ‘radical’ in a Hollywood context. It’s a Scott Free Production (Ridley Scott’s company with Tony Scott receiving a posthumous credit) released by Fox but generally discussed as coming from its writer-director Zal Batmanglij and writer-star Brit Marling. The couple have already produced two earlier titles which I haven’t seen. This one didn’t work for me but it is interesting in terms of its generic roots and some of its casting decisions.
Marling plays Sarah, an ex-FBI agent now working for a private intelligence/security organisation. Her task is to infiltrate an ‘eco-terrorist’ group called ‘The East’. The group organises ‘jams’ – stunts designed to extract vengeance in the biblical sense of ‘an eye for eye’ directed towards the owners and CEOs of corporations who have caused direct harm to communities through their commercial policies on pollution, (lack of) testing of products etc.
The scenario of police/’security’ officers on deep cover missions, often lasting several years, is news again in the UK at the moment and it is an interesting topic. But this fictional US story (though supposedly using some real news stories as material) is rather different in that the lead character seems able to leave the group and come back and operate with two separate identities. The film narrative draws on several older cycles of films from various genres, supplying plot lines and also characters and visualisations. I was reminded of scenes from Gattaca (the security company itself as a fortress – bland and corporate on the outside like the hospital in Coma). Much of the iconography of someone on the run/undercover around Washington DC is reminiscent of Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State. Not so much in plot terms but in its political implications the film reminds us of the cycle of paranoia thrillers from the early 1970s such as The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor. Unfortunately, The East doesn’t carry the same disturbance factor for the audience.
‘The East’ is one of several separate ‘cells’ which are linked together. I didn’t really understand this and the politics of ‘anarchist’ groups is never properly represented or discussed. Crucially in terms of visualising the cell’s activities, The East appears to operate from a derelict house set in woodland somewhere on the Eastern seaboard. This gives the ‘community’ a ‘return to nature’ feel that one hand feels very traditional – the Thoreau-like sense of ‘real America’ – but also refers to Hollywood’s ideas about hippy communes, survivalist terrorists in the backwoods or perhaps survivors in some kind of post-apocalyptic dystopia. There is also a religious discourse that I have to confess I didn’t properly latch onto. Being ‘washed’ in the lake is a feature of being accepted by the group – as I read afterwards. I also didn’t understand what Sarah was doing all the time, but I read in other reviews that she is meant to be a committed Christian who listens to ‘Christian radio’ (I always wondered who listened to those stations or God TV – it seems a very unlikely pastime for an undercover agent). The most positive spin I can put on the woodland setting is that it reminded me of the final scenes of Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 with the ‘rebels’ walking around the woods memorising books that have been burned in the outside world.
The big problem with the film is that the narrative form usually associated with this genre has only a few possible outcomes. The hero is usually either a counter-culture/radical character or a professional God-fearing American security officer. The latter can ‘win’ by closing down the terrorist cell, the former must die, get brainwashed or there must be a compromise that allows the corporate villains to be brought back into the capitalist fold. Hollywood can’t really countenance anything else. In this case Sarah’s character complicates the narrative in that she finds her own ‘third way’ of dealing with things. I won’t spoil the narrative development but it seemed naïve at best as a way of closing the narrative.
Ms Marling is clearly an intelligent woman who has written a strong female role for a thriller – but for me the star of the film should have been Ellen Page who is rather wasted in a smaller role. Having said that, Ms Page is very distinctive and doesn’t fade into the background well. Brit Marling’s Sarah goes undercover by lightening her hair but this means that she looks like she’s slumming it for most of the time and at the end of the film all I could think was that she looked ‘prissy’ in a skirt and blouse. I’m not sure why, but this seemed to be inappropriate in some way. But I don’t want to be too hard on the film. It is low-budget by Hollywood standards and has had only a limited release in the North America. In the UK it has got into multiplexes with 123 prints, just scraping into the Top 15.
The film is a US/UK production and from my perspective it is interesting that the other three main characters are played by a Canadian (Ellen Page), a Swede (Alexander Skarsgård) and a Yorkshireman (Toby Kebbell) – and very good they are too. I don’t think the film works but I’m pleased to see a real attempt to make this kind of film and I look forward to more films on topics like this.