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There are some surface similarities to Sound of My Voice.

One of the things that comes across very clearly in The East is how willing it is to push buttons. It’s practically Pushes Buttons: The Movie. Complimentary to this is just how damn confident it is, on pretty well every level of the production. Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling wowed everybody a couple of years ago (or last year, depending on your access to cinemas) with Sound of My Voice in pretty similar fashion. The East is an order of magnitude beyond that, or several, not only in terms of tension and turning screws, but also subverting expectations and challenging viewers and doing it all with surprising ambition and always that unflappable confidence.

I’m not sure whether it’s intentional (of course it is) or not, but even the premise of this movie is precisely set up to be inviting to incredibly diverse people only to turn it around on them. The premise is: private sector intelligence agent infiltrates secretive ecoterror cabal. That immediately implies a judgment against the environmental activism (trickling down from the extremist level, I guess) or an endorsement of it via the somewhat natural notion that this is a story about someone fighting for one side, finding out its wrong, and fighting for the other. What people read into the premise is going to decide the movie before them before they ever sit down and watch it. There’s a type of person for whom it’s a given that environmental activism is a modern evil, that groups like The East are basically terrorists, etc. Then there’s the type for whom The East is going to have direct appeal, either convincing them of something they suspected was true or reaffirming ideas they already had.

But the film is more complicated and richer than either of those relatively straightforward (preconceived) notions. I can say that it comes down a lot more on the side of environmentalism, even extreme activism, but that it doesn’t get there through a simplistic moralist story about evil corporations and good hippies. The East actually chances undermining the authenticity of its eventual position by including certain characteristics in its core group of activists. This is a calculated risk, though, and one of the best signs that The East is everything you’re thinking it is while you’re watching it. It’s a subtle character study built on a straightforward plot. All the challenges come in the spaces in between the characters, in the pauses between their activities.

Just in case I obfuscated it by avoiding direct spoilers, I loved this film. It’s brilliant and challenging and ambiguous in all the right ways. It’s the best spy movie in years.

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Part of Jane’s problem is not knowing which connections to lean on.

Jane Owen (Brit Marling) is a young and ambitious intelligence operative working for a company that caters to big corporations by protecting their reputation and damaging their enemies from the inside. She used to be FBI but the private sector seems to afford her more opportunities to do serious field work. Hand-picked by Sharon (Patricia Clarkson), Jane dyes her hair and becomes “Sarah”, a traveling hipster smart and canny enough to put herself in contact with an elusive group called The East.

In some fairly important ways, The East is about the dichotomy of identity and how splitting oneself up into discrete persons can lead to essential conflicts at the core of who we are. The East is not heavy-handed about this and is quite happy to let the audience pick this theme up at any point, whilst being more directly engaged by the tension and intrigue of Sarah’s infiltration and The East’s plans.

Because it is one of the key themes, and my primary source of evidence for the claim that this is a subtle character study as much as a thriller, let me say a bit more. For me, the first big sign that this was going to be a movie more about Jane/Sarah than anything else was the inclusion of a boyfriend character. Tim (Jason Ritter) is her nice guy live-in boyfriend, a guy who seems about to ask her to take the next step in their relationship before she shushes him, using this new job as an excuse. Jane never seems comfortable with Tim, it’s as simple as that, and it only intensifies as her odyssey into The East continues. There’s nothing explicit about this progression from not wanting to talk about whatever Tim is about to ask and then feeling like a foreigner at home. When Tim finds her sleeping on the floor instead of with him, he’s smart enough to know what the movie doesn’t explicitly tell us, always striving instead to find ways (both great and small) to show us. Jane is gone. Replaced by Sarah.

But there’s more than this. Jane’s cover name, whether assigned to her or chosen, is Sarah. Sarah sounds like Sharon. Sarah’s hair is blond, like Sharon’s. Sarah is a staunch “company woman” or wants to appear to be (as Jane). This is subtle stuff, meant to feed the central irony that even whilst emulating Sharon, Sarah becomes the enemy of everything she stands for. This is a relationship that gets a relatively tiny amount of screen time, but I think I’d argue that it’s the most important relationship in the film.

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Some are saying that Jane is like a female Jason Bourne.

The East gets on everybody’s radar by taking aggressive, punitive action against CEOs and high-ranking corporate figures who they claim are responsible for various atrocities. All the corporate crimes tackled by this movie are based on real things that have happened. You may find yourself being reminded of stuff you’ve read over the last few years. Gas in water, drugs that cause horrific side-effects, etc. This is about when the conservative types hoping this is a movie for them will begin to feel a bit uneasy. It’s all just too real. Marling and Batmanglij understand our collective discomfort about this, and they pin it to us like the proverbial tail on the donkey. They invite us to feel a visceral thrill at someone finally standing up and doing something. Then it gets complicated.

Sarah eventually finds her way into The East by helping the trusting Luca (Shiloh Fernandez) with some train cops. She meets the core group of Doc (Toby Kebbel), Izzy (Ellen Page) and Benji (Alexander Skarsgard) and watches them while they induct her into their hippy-dippy, seemingly cultish social customs. This is the one place where Sound of My Voice is instantly recalled and The East may surpass even that film for creating a disconcertingly mixed mystique around a group of people. As with their previous film, Batmanglij and Marling make the shady group here appealing and repulsive at once. The scene where they wear straitjackets and feed each other soup is brilliant both in its underlying tension and its communal message. We understand Sarah’s frustration at being tricked, but we also understand the ideological appeal. They feed each other, sacrificing one person’s greed and immediacy in favor of the collective.

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Marling plays Sarah close to the vest. Showing us much without telling us anything.

Of course, the film begins with something like this only so it can deconstruct it later. The East is not an idyllic or fully cohesive group. They have disagreements and a rotating membership of hangers on and people with personal vendettas. We discover that Izzy’s father is the CEO of a company that pours arsenic into water, something that costs at least one life by the time The East selects him for one of their “jams” (what they call their attacks on corporations). This goes back to something I said earlier about the film risking undermining itself. See, it would be a lot cleaner to have all of the members of The East be ultra-canny regular folks who are simply and morally outraged, with no icky personal history or ego to get in the way of ideological purity. But that’s idealistic and The East is not that kind of idealistic. Instead, we’re supposed to wonder if Izzy’s personal involvement with the arsenic jam undermines her, undermines what The East is, even. She’s a rich kid, and so is Benji, and maybe this reaffirms the popular notion that “eco-warriors” are a bunch of spoiled kids who are really just mad at mommy and daddy. While this is true of Izzy, and shades her character, it’s a disservice to Benji who is far more of an iconoclast. He’s an ambiguous character and Skarsgard plays him with big-eyed sincerity in a facade that eventually drops away to reveal the shrewd, dangerous creature within. He’s the real deal, in other words. Rather than embracing this, the film rejects Benji.

Previously, Sarah’s first jam with the group was one where they gave a drug called Dioxin to a party full of the parent company’s high ranking corporate officers as well as their guests and families. Sarah tries to stop as many as she can from dosing Dioxin, setting up the moral politics of the film. More and more, we have reason to support the fundamental aim of The East as we become convinced that it’s right to fight back against exploitative and harmful corporate practices that virtually no other social institution has any effect on. Just so, we have more and more reason to feel a certain disconnect from the Hammurabi morality of Benji and his crew. “Poison us, we’ll poison you” they say. From Sarah’s perspective, it’s the harming of people that crosses the ideological line. Even when she turns, this stays a constant. It’s actually part of what turns her. Sharon, as it happens, is every bit as willing to sacrifice people for her ambition as Benji or Izzy are.

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Sarah’s always trying to save people, all through the movie. This keeps us on her side.

Sarah, however, isn’t. She’s only really willing to sacrifice herself. She becomes emblematic of a kind of intelligent, precise approach to activism that belies the lazy pothead stereotype as well as the Unibomber stereotype. She’s an activist for the Occupy generation. Smart, capable, technologically proficient, and brave enough to not take the easy path. This doesn’t mean she reflects the Occupy type so much as she is aspirational. This is who we, those of us who believe in activism and want to see changes in the world even if it means getting serious, should aspire to be like. There aren’t really any characters that embody the “tree-hugger” stereotype so well as Benji embodies his, but I chalk this up to the film not really taking that stereotype seriously in the first place and instead broadening the idea into the general social practices (group baths, feeding, bonfires, and kissing games) that The East carries on with when they’re not playing the part of high-tech, super competent environmental activists. Carving through all of that is the version of Sarah that Jane eventually becomes.

Choosing who to be is fundamental to the film. Jane’s journey toward Sarah is meant as (at least) a rough analog of the kind of choices our consciences demand of us. Do I think you have to go this far in order to fight the good fight? Will I hurt people for my cause? Will I risk being hurt for it? But most of all: how far is too far?

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It’s a movie of layers, even when it strips them.

In case I’ve given the impression that Jane/Sarah is some kind of untouchable paragon, let me rectify that. One of the more interesting and risky propositions the film makes is the attraction Sarah feels for Benji. An affair subplot, especially in these circumstances, could easily railroad the movie or turn either character more simpering and moronic than they are up to this point. To hedge its best, The East steadily builds up to the final breakdown in whatever walls these two have kept up. For Sarah, it’s a release and another step toward replacing Jane with a new, better person. For Benji, as we find out later, it’s the last step in a long and intricate plan to manipulate Jane into helping The East willingly or in spite of herself. While its a scene caught up in the after-effects of Izzy’s sad, horrifically authentic death, the full realization that Benji knows who Jane is, has known all along, is supposed to make us think back to this and realize just how scary Benji’s focus really is. For Skarsgard, an impeccable actor, it’s as easy as narrowing his eyes and changing his body language to reflect that focus over the ambling, affable, and boylike mannerisms of his social persona. They’ve both been hiding behind assumed identities, probably people they both really like better, but when the gloves come off its Sarah who remains and Benji who rejects his better self.

That’s some nice fucking duality. Part of the pleasure of The East is in realizations like that. All of them come from performance and nuance, never from exposition or histrionics. That is extremely key here. The only time they fumble this, it’s mostly down to an unfortunate music choice. There’s a sequence after Tim and Jane break up where The National’s About Today plays. The song is meant to reflect, now that I think about it, Sarah’s abandonment of Jane. All the sorrow of separation in that song, all the bereavement, is meant for this. Unfortunately, that song is owned by The Warrior, and the beginning of the sequence it’s used for in The East just doesn’t work. When Sarah jogging in her home city transitions to going back to The East’s headquarters the last time, it clicks but just a half-step too late to not feel a little manipulated. It’s a misstep only because it suggests that we’re supposed to feel bad about Tim leaving her (at first, anyway) when its true purpose in the sequence has nothing to do with Tim and is actually, on its own, a nice use of the song. Sometimes subtle is too subtle, I guess.

Not every movie needs such a deft touch, but The East is the kind of movie that keeps the audience at arm’s length, never telling you how to feel or what to think but inviting you to come to your own conclusions even if they disagree with those of its characters. Not everybody is going to feel the vicarious triumph of Sarah’s choice, nor the small token we get in the credits that it’s been at least a little successful.

This movie is okay with that because it respects your intelligence. It doesn’t want to tell you how it is, it wants to show you something and see what you make of it. It’s utterly respectful of your intelligence.

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