The fundamental question posed by The East treads familiar territory: Is it okay to resort to violent and subversive means to shed light on a major injustice, or does that make you no better than those you disagree with? The answer is boringly complex, but, lucky for us, this film has a little more to offer than just that.
The East is a political thriller, written and directed by Zal Batmanglij and starring Brit Marling, who also co-wrote the script. These are the same two people responsible for 2011's Another Earth and Sound of My Voice. I haven't seen the latter, but I was taken in by Another Earth's earnest, domestic perspective on a global science fiction premise. I wrote a gushy, glowing review that I was later embarrassed by when several people told me how wrong I was, that the film was silly and stupid and only a fool would let it into her heart.
The East might suffer from a similar pretension if it weren't so sincere. Marling plays Sarah, an ex-FBI agent who, on behalf of faceless, corporate interests, has been recruited by Sharon (Patricia Clarkson) to go undercover and infiltrate the anarchist collective terrorist group known as "The East." Sarah dyes her hair blonde for some reason and picks up with traveling kids. (If the movie had any real guts, they would have given her the signature half-mullet gutter punk haircut.) It's when she meets up with train-hopping homeless youth that things get interesting. They're dirty and desperate, and unlike Sarah, they look like they've been living this lifestyle for a while. When the railroad security discover the kids and take to beating one of them with a stick at the slightest provocation, Sarah is surprised and horrified, but I sure wasn't. If you think that kind of abuse of power doesn't happen against homeless youth when they have no recourse, no witnesses, no one whatsoever looking out for themthat's wrong. It happens all the time.
It's not long before Sarah successfully meets up with the "terrorist cell" she's looking for, led by Benji (Alexander Skarsgård). Other followers include Izzy (Ellen Page), daughter of a powerful pharmaceutical corporate monster, and Doc (Toby Kebbell), who once practiced medicine but has since been incapacitated by the crippling side effects of a profitable, still on-the-market medication. In this description of the characters lie their terroristic motives.
The group organizes subversive, illegal acts called "jams." At one such jam, they disperse high doses of the bad drug to the company's top executives at a partythe ol' "taste of their own medicine" trickand it's an effective prank. Sarah starts to come around to The East's point of view, compounded by her growing attraction to Benji, and from there her moral ambiguity evolves at about the pace you'd expect.
What makes this film worth anything are the sympathetic and unpredictable ways the anarchists are portrayed. They have a culty dinnertime ritual, featuring a new member initiation involving straight jackets and wooden spoons. It's a weird scene, but the conversation Benji and Sarah have in the woods afterward is revealing. You expect Benji to say and act one way, and instead he gives you something else.
Among the film's many predictable and/or implausible moments, The East has an opinion about the freegan lifestyle: It's for it, and good for them. The way we manufacture and distribute food and medicine in this country is at its very core broken and corrupt. The idea that there are rich men and women responsible, and that a few revolutionary-minded kids could come along and rub their noses in the messes they've made is a fantasy, sure, but it's a delicious one.
The East continues at the Wilma Theatre.