Freeganism is a moneyless lifestyle. Freegans ‘re-claim’ discarded food, hop frieght trains, live communally, and share their gains. To dispel some myths, not all freegans are anarchists, not all anarchists are freegans, and not all freegans are vegan. The freegan collective in The East are not by definition anarchists; their target is not the government or ‘the system’. They are going after multinational pharmaceutical and fossil fuel companies that seem to operate above and outside the government system.
Sarah (Brit Marling) attempts to infiltrate the group, which is no easy task. The East are a tight unit, have known each other a long time, have each other’s trust, and are extremely cautious around outsiders. They published their manifesto on the Internet warning the CEOs and other executives responsible for oil spills, poisoned water sources, and dangerous drugs that their sins will be returned to them in kind. If you can do it to the masses, The East will ensure the 1% get theirs as well.
Working for a high-end intelligence firm for no-nonsense and ice-cold boss Sharon (Patricia Clarkson), Sarah starts trekking around outsider groups seeking any connection to The East. Sarah is an ex-FBI agent and must be one of the youngest ex-agents in the history of the agency because she has a sack full of skills to choose from but still looks like she is in her late-20s. She picks locks with ease, appears fluent in American Sign Language out of nowhere, and the National Clandestine Service would fall all over themselves to recruit her for her superior human intelligence skills.
In way too many convenient ways, Sarah hooks up with The East and begins to earn their trust. Led by Benji (Alexander Skarsgard), the group squats in an old, burned-out Victorian home where they plan their next moves against the all too powerful conglomerates. Also part of The East is Izzy (Ellen Page), a truly devoted acolyte to the cause, and Doc (Toby Kebbell). Doc is naturally the group’s medicine man in times of need and also has an overt, personal grudge against a particular pharmaceutical entity who peddle drugs with nary a worry for their known side effects.
If you spend enough time with a group, almost any group, you will sympathize with their cause and want their goals to succeed. Sympathizing with caring folk earnestly trying to save the environment must be one of the easiest groups to fall victim to Stockholm Syndrome. Sarah finds herself falling step by step to becoming a full-fledged and converted member of The East, more than just acting the act for her intelligence gig.
Making the bad guys evil corporations who knowingly give poor people cancer was a good move by writers Marling and Zal Batmanglij, who also directed the film. Corporations engaging in corrupt malfeasance make newspaper headlines everyday and are no stretch to resonate with an audience and get them to root for The East even though their methods are vigilante and illegal. Going after the financial system would be too confusing and going after government entities would be too polarizing.
Marling, pulling double duty as lead actress and co-screenwriter, once again shows herself to be an engaging screen-presence. She is straightforward, confident, and vulnerable all in the same scene. Marling is so good because she is low key. The East is technically a thriller but she is smart enough to throttle back and let the plot do the work; she knows better than to act over-anguished and upset; she is probably the most passive action/thriller heroine ever.
She was also phenomenal in 2011’s Another Earth, which she also co-wrote, and was one of that year’s best films in my opinion. The East is not as profound as Another Earth and has a ridiculous ending, but it is still very effective at getting the audience to think. Marling has a very rare double gift for acting and writing and after producing another winner here, I consider her established and ready to knock our socks off next time. She has all the potential in the world to accomplish that.
Directed by: Zal Batmanglij
Written by: Brit Marling, Zal Batmanglij
Starring: Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgard, Ellen Page, Tony Kebbell, Shiloh Fernandez, Aldis Hodge, Danielle Macdonald, Hillary Baack, Patricia Clarkson, Jason Ritter, Julia Ormond