THE EAST is a fast-paced thriller about eco-activists written by actor Brit Marling (who also stars in the film) along with director Zal Batmanglij, starring Alexander Skarsgård, Ellen Page and Patricia Clarkson. Marling is spellbinding as Sarah Moss, an ex-FBI operative now working undercover for Hiller Brood, a private intelligence firm, run with icy efficiency by Sharon (Patricia Clarkson). Her first assignment is to infiltrate THE EAST, an eco-terrorist cell with a hard line approach to punishing environmental polluters. As the punchy trailer advises, if you’re an oil exec who is sanguine about oil spills it might be a good idea to get ready for a spot of bother at home… The chilling voice-over declares, ‘We don’t care how rich you are, we want all those guilty to experience their crimes. It’s easy when it’s not your life, easy when it’s not your home; But when it’s your fault, it shouldn’t be so easy to sleep at night. Especially when we know where you live.’
Writers Batmanglij and Marling spent two months in 2009 practicing freeganism, or dumpster diving, the practice of claiming food that has been discarded. They then co-wrote the screenplay for THE EAST based on their experiences and drawing on thriller films such as The Bourne Identity and Michael Clayton. This ‘method approach’ definitely contributes to the overall mood of the film. Marling said, ‘We wanted to have some adventure, and we didn’t have any money. We learned to hop trains, we learned to sleep on rooftops, we learned to claim the space that feels so private. We joined this anarchist collective.’ Batmanglij said the film focused on the pharmaceutical industry due to the writers hearing stories about the side effects of drugs, such as a drug to help quit smoking that resulted in some people committing suicide. He said they considered focusing on banks due to the worldwide downturn of 2007 right up to the present day but they chose the pharmaceutical industry so the mission in the film would have a more emotional resonance.
Marling and Batmanglij skillfully invests THE EAST with an almost unbearable suspense, combining the emotional dynamics of the group with the kind of top-drawer acting that you’d expect from a cast this stellar. Ellen ‘Juno’ Page is alive with ferocious indignity and clearly unconvinced by Sarah’s skillful infiltration of the group, while the widow spider-like Clarkson effortlessly steals every scene she’s in. Alexander Skarsgård is great as Benji, the unsettling and handsome leader. The film’s ending may be unsatisfying, but only to take us to where the film’s been heading all along, a moral abyss. THE EAST makes you want to know more and gives a good indication of where to look. A rare thing these days – a movie that gives a damn and makes you want to care too.