The East is a well-crafted, beautifully-shot story about justice for humanity’s crimes against nature – and thus against itself – but it seems to me that it is predominantly a story about the individual. Change, after all, begins with one person doing the right thing. The film opens with choppy, home video footage of a group of people breaking into the home of a corporate bigwig, who’s company is responsible for dumping gallons of oil into the sea. As we watch the group deliver payback in the form of buckets of oil spilling out air vents and clogging bathroom sinks, we get to listen to Ellen Page deliver The East’s promise to attack two other companies and also to deliver The East’s credo which, simply put, is “an eye for an eye.”
In the next breath, the movie takes us to Jane Owen (Brit Marling). Jane is an undercover agent with an elite private intelligence agency tasked with the high profile assignment of infiltrating and taking out The East before they can get to any of the agency’s big business clientele. Jane is actually the first sign that this movie is far more than an espionage thriller. Jane – who goes undercover as Sarah and will be referred to as Sarah later– is a study of contrasts. Marling plays her as perpetually soft-spoken but also startlingly direct. Her smiles are gentle but distant and while she loves her boyfriend, she has a habit of side-stepping his questions even to the point of not answering them at all. When she becomes Sarah though, it’s like she’s instantly more comfortable with herself, more open. Whatever missing pieces that may exist in Jane Owen cease to exist or, at least cease to matter, when she’s someone else.
As she embarks on the mission of sneaking into the underground sensation the group has become, we drift along behind her in a sea of washed out colors and stark shadows. The surroundings play a big role in this movie, effecting a dreamy air for most of it as we transition from the sharp colors of the city to the softer tones of the countryside. The camera glides as Sarah makes friends with vagabonds, sleeps on the beach, and hops a train with a few hopefuls, following a threadbare trail of breadcrumbs supplied to her by her handler.
When she does find her way to the group, it’s by accident and right after the movie’s first burst of shocking violence. I feel like that scene is the underlining warning of the movie’s hidden dark side. Once with them, she, and we, are not entirely surprised that they’re a somewhat eccentric group of people led by a heavily bearded man named Benji (Alexander Skarsgård). In fact, if your first thought is “hippies”, you wouldn’t be far off. They live off produce that is on it’s way to be trashed, the squashed findings in dumpsters, and sleep on the floor. The house the group is squatting in is big on the outside, surrounded by endless trees, and strangely cozy on the inside, with the people moving around each other like old, dear friends.
In short order we meet Doc (Tobey Kebbell), Izzy (Ellen Page) and eventually Benji. They are the three catalysts that take Sarah, and us, on a journey to learn why we desperately need change. Their stories are the backbone of the plot. They spin us, and Sarah, in new directions, leading us through a twisty, surprisingly dark path. This is where the movie earns the right to be called a thriller and yet the pace is oddly meandering, as if the film forgets that there are bigger things happening. This seems to be on purpose, to remind us, again, of the people behind the ominous videos and covert acts of vengeance.
As we go along however, the sensation of being in a dream slowly thickens into ruthless reality as the movie gains it’s footing, finding anchor in the suspense-laden “jams” (what the group calls their attacks) and in Sarah’s tumble down the rabbit hole. Lines blur and you begin to silently question with her if the group is truly the villain the media and her boss has made them out to be. Benji and Sarah have the inevitable biggest bond though I would say what affects her the most is Izzy, played by Page with a brittleness that is breath-taking. She is the best foil against Benji’s worn and melancholy leadership and it is Izzy that tilts the movie into it’s breathless conclusion. Emotional, alluring and smart, The East was a gorgeous treat from start to finish.
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