[This is a re-post of my review from the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. The East opens today in limited release.]
The undercover thriller is a familiar genre, but it rarely reaches its full potential. For a setting where betrayal and shifting sympathies are central to the plot, most of these stories only provide the semblance of a grey area. Yes, the terrorist is planning to destroy the western seaboard, but his kid died ten years ago, so he’s not all bad. This is an easy road to nominal dramatic conflict while still keeping the audience firmly supporting the hero. With their new film The East, director Zal Batmanglij and co-writer Brit Marling have played the undercover thriller to near-perfection by forcing the audience to sit uncomfortably as we wonder who should deserve our sympathies. Playing to the conventions of the genre stops The East from holding any major surprises, but Batmanglij and his strong cast always keep us riveted as we become as conflicted as the film’s protagonist.
Jane Owen (Marling) works for independent security firm Hiller/Brood. Her boss Sharon (Patricia Clarkson) assigns Jane to infiltrate an eco-terrorist group known as “The East” in order to protect the firm’s corporate clients. Jane takes on the cover identity of “Sarah” and manages to earn the trust of the group’s leader, Benji (Alexander Skarsgård) as well as the cell’s other members including Izzy (Ellen Page), Luca (Shiloh Fernandez), and Doc (Toby Kebbell). Jane slowly begins to leave her old life and beliefs behind as she starts to sympathize with the group’s operations, but struggles to condone their eye-for-an-eye “jams” (i.e. missions).
The basics of the undercover thriller are all in place: the agent comes in believing he or she is wholeheartedly in the right, the agent gets a closer look at the people he or she is supposed to betray, and then the agent feels conflicted about completing the assignment. Sharon even comments on this behavior to a reluctant Jane as a way to reassure her agent that the mission is the right thing to do. The East takes these motions, paces them perfectly, and then expands the inner-conflict into the audience. We don’t simply identify with Jane; the entire movie is about seeing problems close up and then considering if we’ll let this new perspective change our personalities.
One of the central beliefs of The East is that once a dark truth has been uncovered, the viewer must seriously wrestle with the choice of making a stand or being complicit in the horrors. Most thrillers wouldn’t begin by accusing their audience of being lazy and uncaring, but The East isn’t most thrillers. It’s better. Batmanglij and Marling know that if we’re considering our loyalties from before we even meet Jane, we’ll be in the perfect mindset to join her on her life-changing assignment. From there, the filmmakers have found the best vehicle to make the audience seriously wrestle with The East’s mission and their methods.
After 9/11, it would be virtually impossible to get an audience to side with religious terrorists, but eco-terrorism conjures a rich conflict from its name alone. We want to protect the environment, but we don’t want to condone terrorism in any form, and Batmanglij and Marling want us to know that The East isn’t a scrappy band of rebels. They’re dangerous, but the corporations are committing atrocities without being held accountable. Although the movie loves living in the grey area, it sidesteps the considerable problem of bringing The East to justice by having Jane work for an independent firm. The question of why Jane would work for a company rather than the F.B.I. is never explained, but we never get bogged down in that question because in the world of the film, there are only two sides to the war: the polluting corporations and The East.
These clear battle lines may be simple, but The East fills the space between with a frantic, compelling tale that continues to circle back to people who have lost themselves to the cause. At one point, the group goes after the makers of a drug that has a side effect where victims literally cease to recognize themselves in the mirror. The film can be a little obvious at times and a little too cutesy at others (part of Jane’s inauguration involves eating dinner with everyone wearing straitjackets), but Batmanglij keeps up the pace so that we’re always in the tense space between jams, Jane wrestling with her convictions, and the emotional dynamic of the group.
No one in The East is a bad person but Marling and Batmanglij don’t pull the punch when it comes to how the group operates. The eco-terrorists always make sure the punishment fits the crime, and the power of The East is that we actually consider if their actions are justified. To get an audience to this point is remarkable, and the filmmakers do it without ever resorting to cheap tricks like giving the terrorists a single, superficial redeeming trait. Instead, The East operates by the same code as its eponymous terrorist group: show viewers a hard truth and force them to consider if they’ll continue to allow the results.
Through his skillful direction and thoughtful script, Batmanglij has reminded audiences what the undercover thriller can accomplish if the filmmakers understand that inner-conflict should extend past the protagonist. However, his commitment to playing by the genre’s rules keeps him contained to the conventions, which in turns adds some predictability to moments that were clearly meant to land as a surprise. But The East never sets out to redefine the genre. It simply attempts to carry the undercover thriller to its full potential. Jam accomplished.