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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The East

Anarchists, undercover agents and corporate criminals

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Sarah can’t tell her husband about her job. He thinks she’s off to Dubai on private security work when really, she’s going undercover for the sinisterly-named Hiller Brood, a security contractor with powerful corporate clients and a working relationship with the U.S. government. Her mission: locate and infiltrate a mysterious anarchist collective called the East, which has issued threats against pharmaceutical and energy conglomerates.

Whether or not the final twists and turns of the plot entirely work, the journey to The East is interesting and meaningful. Writer-director Zal Batmanglij’s previous effort was the intriguing Sound of My Voice, about filmmakers infiltrating a strange cult in search of a good documentary subject. The East is a more cinematically assured exploration of a similar theme. In both movies, outsiders slip into covert, suspicious groups whose beliefs defy the mainstream. In The East, the theme assumes political as well as psychological dimensions. The anarchists have chosen their targets with care: corporate criminals whose practices and products cause harm, insulated by their wealth from government supervision and from public scrutiny by PR spin.

Co-writer Brit Marling plays Sarah, an inconspicuously attractive professional who blends easily into any milieu and can trade heels for Birkenstocks without losing a step. She is a Christian, we learn from the visual and sonic information Batmanglij slips into the production without bogging down the screenplay with explanatory digressions. Sarah travels by RideShare and bike, ingratiating herself on the road with countercultural dropouts—millennial hobos who hop freight trains and make like The Lumineers, singing old folk blues and accompanying themselves on banjo and fiddle. Some of those freak folkies subsist by raiding restaurant dumpsters for day-old bakery and discarded produce. They live on what America throws away.

Sarah surreptitiously photographs suspects with her smart phone and stays wired to Hiller Brood. Escaping from brutal railroad police, she falls into the company she seeks, anarchists squatting in an abandoned country house without electricity. Like the insurrectionists from Dostoyevsky’s underground, they draw their plots in the dark by candlelight, argue over the means of revolution and bind themselves communally. Benji (Alexander Skarsgård) and Izzy (Ellen Page) are the group's natural leaders, but as good anarchists, they adhere to the vote of the majority. All of them come from posh backgrounds, gaining them entry to the preserves of the rich.

The East is a complex study in morally gray twilight. Sarah is the film’s troubled conscience, navigating between the fanatical zeal of the anarchists and the brutal banality of the CEOs ensconced in gated communities as the world sinks into the sludge they produce. Can Sarah, who comes to sympathize with her friends in the collective, find a way to jam the system without causing more harm?