Review first published by Film4.
Synopsis: Follow-up to Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling’s The Sound Of My Voice converts the politics of anti-corporate extremism into engaging genre thrills.
Review: From Deep Cover (1992) to Donnie Brasco (1997), from Infernal Affairs (2002) to TV’s The Americans (2013), our screens are full of stories involving undercover agents pushed into crises of identity by a combination of conflicting allegiances and Stockholm syndrome. In The East, the agent is Sarah (Brit Marling), assigned by a shadowy private security firm to infiltrate the eponymous anarchists’ collective, and to report back on its publicity-drawing ‘jams’ against corporate corruption. Attracted to the group’s charismatic leader Benji (Alexander Skarsgård), Sarah soon finds herself seduced by The East’s values, if dismayed by their M.O..
Drawing from their own experiences hanging out with anarchists in the late Noughties, writer/director Zal Batmanglij and his co-writer/lead Marling follow up their previous collaboration The Sound Of My Voice (2011) with this timely examination of the politics of resistance, all palatably couched within a taut genre frame. Leaving no doubt about the criminal activities of the companies that the group targets, the film can instead focus on the motives and methodologies of the ‘terrorists’ themselves, who are shown engaging in an evolving dialectic about the morality of their own increasingly violent actions, even as they mirror both the crimes – and the PR – of the very corporations that they attack.
Further muddying the ideological waters, it will emerge that jams purporting to be purely political have deeply personal causes – although part of the film’s admirably complicated, contradictory message, as suggested by a pair of scenes in which Sarah feels around in another’s quivering entrails, is that we should all, as individuals or members of corporate society, be willing to get closer to, and perhaps bloodier with, our body politic. A pity, though, that the film’s ending is so rushed and disappointingly pat.
In A Nutshell: A complicated film (with an oversimplistic ending) for the age of the Occupy Movement, The East probes the ethics of those who would oppose corporate malfeasance through covert action.