If you haven’t sensed the theme of late, it’s Brit Marling, Marling, Marling. I’ve been working my way through all of her movies top to bottom. The OA, I, Origins, The Sound of My Voice, etc, etc. And while not all of them are THiNC. worthy, I think her movie about infiltrating an anarchist group entitled the East really is. If you haven’t seen the film, there will be spoilers throughout this post, so be aware. You’d probably do well to grab a copy right here or over there —-> and give it a watch before going any further.
Basically, the high level overview for the film is that an employee for a high end private intel company gets in a little too deep while infiltrating her way into an anarchist group that are going after three massive hits on three different mega-corporations. Here, check out the trailer:
Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling teamed up again to write this story after working together on The Sound of My Voice. Which, they also worked together on writing The OA, while working on both The Sound of my Voice and The East. Which basically, by my math, means that The Sound of My Voice and The East were both their warm up before swinging for the fence with The OA. (I’m telling you, The OA is one of my favorite TV shows of all time. And I have an open bounty – if you manage to get me an interview with Brit Marling I’ll have your children. I’ll put you in my will. I’ll give you all my bacon for life. (Literally cannot think of a bigger reward than that.))
The East High Level Walk Through
Sarah (Brit Marling) heads out to find the anarchist group The East while working for the private intelligence company Hiller Brood. HB protects private corporations from hacking threats, and other physical threats by providing them with intel that they couldn’t get on their own. And after a couple of failures, she eventually meets up with a group that takes her in after she “got hurt” on some barbwire in a train yard.
After presenting her bonafides, she is given a couple days to prove herself. During a dinner, wherein the group wears straightjackets, Sarah fails miserably when she proves her selfishness by only attempting to feed herself. And when the clan begin eating she realizes that they, rhythmically, alternate between feeding others and being fed. Which, is one of the things that I adore about this Brit/Zal partnership, and their screenplay style. They love strange communities and interesting/upside down ways of viewing life. In the OA its all about the five dance movements they religiously studied together. In the Sound of My Voice, it was an elaborate handshake. In The East its all about these intricate communal rituals (communal bathing, communal eating, etc). They also balance this idea of faith and spirituality in the everyday that is so rare today.
Regardless, after the group gave her a couple days, Sarah tells Eve (Hillary Baack) she needs to leave, or she’ll eventually be busted. Which leaves a hole in the group during the next jam that they are going to perform. Jams are hits on corporations that are irresponsible. The East believes that they should do exactly what these corporations do to unwitting Americans. The team goes to a party, hosted by a pharmaceutical company that caused tumors, and brain issues within patients that used their products. And so the team spikes the party’s champagne with the drug. And when one key employee begins exhibiting the symptoms that show she may very well have brain issues, the team sees the jam as a huge success.
The second jam? Is against Izzy’s (Ellen Page) father’s company petrochemical CEO. Izzy and her father had been separated for a number of years, and Izzy heads into the company’s quarterly earnings meetings in order to confront him about their pollution of the local water. Izzy’s father and another employee are taken out to the local pond near the company in order to make them get in the water. But the company’s security arrives and Izzy is shot as they flee. Sarah performs surgery on behalf of Doc (Toby Kebbell – who was the lead in one of my favorite Dark Mirror episodes, ) who can’t do the surgery because his hands shake after using a drug from the first company they hit. But, as a result of her wounds, Izzy dies. It’s then that Sarah and Benji (Alexander Skarsgård) – the group’s leader – make out, sort of consummating this attraction that has been building for a while now.
Sarah is pretty certain that The East will disband as a result of the failed mission, and Izzy’s death. But when she returns to Benji and the group, she learns that Benji is certain to go through with the third jam regardless. What he doesn’t tell her is that he is onto her. He knows that she is an undercover agent. And so, when they arrive at Hiller Brood’s headquarter offices, he tells her that he wants the names of all the other agents deployed to monitor the other cells of The East.
So Sarah goes in, and figures out a way to photo all the agents on her boss’ computer, including herself. But as she is leaving the facility, the guards take her Blackberry, which she used to record the information on. Benji and Sarah take off in order to head to Canada and run away. Benji knows he is asking her to ditch her life, and come with him, knowing full well that he has had an impact on her. But Sarah, on the other hand, knows that the lives of the agents on that list would be in jeopardy if she had given over the list to him. And so she says goodbye to Benji.
It’s only when he’s gone that we realize that Sarah took out the memory chip in her Blackberry, and swallowed it. Throwing it back up, Sarah was able to recover the information and then reach out to each of the agents on the list and tell them of what she’s seen and heard. To tell them about Hiller Brood’s darker ties to these corporations.
The Fascinating Flip of The East
Like I said before, Brit Marling, as a writer, chooses the most fascinating topics of human sociology to delve into. This anarchist’s group is like nothing we’ve ever seen before on film. Heck, it’s like nothing else that’s ever been done before, on film or not. So kudos to you Brit. Your characters, and your cliques are always so fascinating to muck around in with you.
Sarah is the ever-evolving character in this movie. She starts out as an idealist that is full tilt and gung ho about making it at Hiller Brood. It’s obvious that her boyfriend is dying to ask her to marry him. Or get pregnant. Or something big. But he’s completely shut out for her work. Eventually she dives into The East, and meets Benji. His philosophies and ideas about the world and the way modern society lives today is radically wrong. And she finds herself agreeing with him. But not necessarily the details of the jams they are doing. But to see her come full circle, to use the list that Benji wanted to use, but to use it her own way is fascinating. It implies that she has become the new Benji. More of an practical-idealist. Avidly attacking the companies she once protected, but utilizing mainly legal means this time.
Final Thoughts on The East
Did you notice the prayer that Sarah says at the opening, and then again at the end? Well, any time a movie creator decides to repeat something, we should pay close attention to said thing because screentime comes at a premium. It’s like with poetry, and literature. If the author decided to say a thing, and then say said thing again?, yeah, we would do well to pay attention. And for us, we learn that Sarah is grounded in something deeper, but she’s obviously willing to do really anything in order to make a change, and make a difference. And yet, Zal Batmanglij has compared the film’s ambivalent ending to the one in the 2002 film 25th Hour: “I feel like it’s almost as if the film’s events never happened at its end… It’s sort of like what we’re all capable of if we put our minds to it. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done in order to make changes, even for her to make changes.”
So, did Sarah have an impact at the end of the day? I think we learn that Sarah liked the message that The East was sending, and the cause they worked under. But she did not agree with the way in which the group made their point. So instead of threatening, or risking lives, Sarah decided take up her own banner, and go after her own cause towards this end. And end that included flipping all the other agents she had identified. But did she have a measurable impact? I think it all comes back to that prayer she prayed for strength. That she prayed not to be prideful. And ultimately, she is the one she has the most impact on ultimately…
Edited by, CY