Initially appearing to be your run of the mill spy thriller, Zal Batmanglij’s The East gradually reveals itself to be a moving and thought-provoking tale that tackles contemporary corporate issues and alternative attitudes.
The premise of The East is centred around the character of Sarah (Brit Marling), an undercover agent working for an elite private intelligence firm who is sent to infiltrate an anarchist collective, carrying out acts of revenge against corrupt corporations guilty of covering-up criminal activity. However, despite Sarah’s initial professionalism, things soon start to get complicated as Sarah’s loyalties shift and the line between what is right and wrong are no longer clear.
Co-written by leading lady Brit Marling and director Zal Batmanglij, The East is the second film the pair have penned and Batmanglij’s second foray into directing. After the success of their first film Sound of My Voice at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011, Marling and Batmanglij have been closely followed by Hollywood insiders, notably The East’s producer Michael Costigan of Ridley Scott’s production company, Scott Free Productions.
The blend of Hollywood and independent production values is highly appropriate and works well with The East’s preoccupation with the contradictions inherent at either end of the political spectrum, in dominant culture and alternative culture. The contrast between the fast-paced, steely environment of the private intelligence firm, reminiscent of many other spy genre films, and the beautifully shot and mysterious squatted mansion that houses the anarchists, creates a tension in the narrative that makes for a thrilling watch; as the viewer never quite knows where they’ll end up, much like protagonist Sarah.
Despite the oscillating setting, the screenplay feels intimate and true to life. It is not surprising that Marling and Batmanglij actually wrote a lot of the film based on their own experiences squatting and dabbling in freeganism. Occasionally, though, the portrayal of alternative lifestyles can feel a little clichéd and exaggerated, for instance in Sarah’s ‘initiation’ and the implications about free-loving, but mostly the characters are convincing and sensitively represented.
The reality of Marling and Batmanglij’s experiences was also mirrored onset, the actors and crew actually lived and ate together in the house in the woods over the course of shooting, and this chemistry between actors transposes well onto the screen. The relationships between the characters are mostly involving and help to move the story forward.
Academy Award nominee Ellen Page plays Izzy, one of the most forceful activists in the group. The role lacks the charm and humour that gained Page recognition in the 2005 film Juno, but in familiar territory to Hard Candy, Page gives a haunting performance that equally draws you towards, and repels you from, the beliefs and goals of the collective. Brit Marling however is really the actress driving this film. Despite her presence in nearly every single scene she is very easy to watch and portrays Sarah’s inner conflict suitably subtly.
The East’s treatment of corporate cover-ups of criminal activity cannot help but strike a chord in modern society. The film makes great efforts to remind the viewer of the truths inherent in the story by referencing YouTube and making use of newsreel montages. This technique, however, is inconsistent and in a film that already makes use of several different styles it is perhaps a little unnecessary.
Having said this, these criticisms can easily be overlooked as The East is a powerful and riveting film that feels rather unique in contemporary film-making and is a film that not only keeps you guessing, but stays with the you long after leaving the cinema.
Written By: Holly Turpin
The East is released in cinemas on 28th June!