Sarah Moss (Brit Marling) is a former FBI officer now working as an undercover agent for a private intelligence firm in Washington D.C. Moss is chosen to infiltrate a youth collective called The East, who straddle the line between anarchist and activist, planning to take down the executives of greedy and corrupt US corporations.
Moss finds a hidden world full of underground rituals inside The East, and using her detective wit to quickly become an integral part of the collective, they carry out three specific, expertly organised ‘jams’ (acts of eco-terrorism). She quickly falls in love with the leader, Benji (Alexander Skarsgard) before the collective unravel and she finds herself far more central to the final mission than she had ever expected.
Zal Batmanglij and Marling, as director and leading actress as well as co-producers and co-writers, spent a summer researching the idea behind the story and living life like vagabonds, immersed in freeganism in a cult-like community. They tell a story that feels real and relatable, though some of the events seem highly glamorised while others are farfetched, in a time where a film like this needs to be made.
The band of vagabonds live day to day seemingly peacefully squatting and ‘skipping’ (finding food from supermarket and factory bins) to survive, hitching trains and cars to make their way around and find their way back to each other. Underneath the exterior, they skilfully plan undercover missions to shame, poison, and even kill in order to unearth truth for the masses and seek out revenge for past crimes and immoral actions.
It’s captivating and gripping, if a little confusing, as the story twists and turns at a moment’s notice leading Moss further and further into danger, while she also flirts and seemingly falls in love with the radical ideas which fuel The East.
The film does well to reference pop culture and follow a very modern and true narrative, mimicking the anger and desire to change that fuels much of today’s youth in a world being slowly corrupted and corroded by toxic banks and greedy corporations consumed with capitalism. Batmanglij references the Occupy Movement and events like 2010’s BP oil spill in interviews; events which occurred while they filmed, but a year after he and Marling wrote the script.
By the end, you can see Moss has undergone a mental transformation, but until the very last scene you are still kept on tenterhooks; wondering whether she is unbreakable at keeping her steely and stealthy character until her chance to depart or has she been occupied by the ideals and spirit of the collective. The film does, unfortunately, drag in the final quarter. The final ‘jam’ feels quite lethargic and comes too late in the story to bear best resonance.
Ellen Page and Hollywood newcomer Shiloh Fernandez are excellent as the supporting characters of Izzy and Luca, working extremely well to balance the group; Izzy’s quiet rage and all-consuming thirst for revenge contrasts nicely with Luca’s underlying sweet, well-meaning nature. Skarsgard puts in a convincing turn as leading man Benji, though much of the action is missed by him as he takes on the role of the superior being, leader of the group and mission mastermind.
The East is tantalising and unnerving. It’s also confusing, tiring and annoying – but that’s a just replication and representation of the feeling fuelling youth activist groups living in today’s imperfect world where detrimental errors from ‘The 1%’ go unpunished and swept under the carpet.