There's a scene early in The East (2013, directed by Zal Batmanglij) in which our heroine, Jane, puts a gold cross around her neck. She later says a prayer that she might be strong in the face of the task in front of her. Her job is corporate security and she's going undercover to infiltrate an ecological/anarchist collective. The thing that jumps out at me about this scene is that the film is indulging in dogwhistles. This is a signifier that has no purpose in the film but to subtly demonize the "side" Jane is on: corporate, conservative, Christian. The film's sympathies are with resistance to all three of these ideologies, though the film makes no further use of Jane's Christianity, even as moral dilemma. This is a missed opportunity. The movie as a whole is like that.
The plot of The East finds Jane (Brit Marling) assigned to infiltrate The East, who have vowed to act against three corporate targets in revenge for corporate malfeasance. Jane sheds her life in the Beltway, dyes her hair, and moves among indigents and post-modern hippies in the hopes of finding the group, but the man she views as her best lead turns out to be a Fed. She's about to give up the chase when, after being rousted by railroad bulls, she sees a talisman in the possession of one of the other rail-hoppers indicating a connection to The East. The rail-hopper is Luca, who Jane defends from a homophobic railroad cop. When she realizes that Luca is her connection, she injures herself, which entices Luca to take her to The East for medical attention. Once there, she embeds herself as deeply as she can. The other members of The East are Izzy (a committed radical), Doc (a former doctor with a history), Tessa (an Earth mothery computer genius), Eve (a deaf girl who discovers Jane's identity), and Benji (the charismatic leader). Jane convinces Eve to abandon the group after she's discovered with the threat of life imprisonment for terrorism. Jane then takes her place in the group's next "jam," a disturbing prank on the executives of a drug company in which they are dosed with their own unsafe drug. Jane's controller at Hiller Brood tells her to allow the jam to proceed because, well, they're not their client. Jane lives a double life, from here on out, but finds herself more and more drawn to The East's ideals, to say nothing of Benji, who tempts her away from fidelity to her longtime boyfriend. The next jam is Izzy's baby, targeting a coal company that's poisoning waterways. This has a personal meaning for Izzy, whose father is an executive with the company. This jam goes horribly wrong and ends with Izzy on a table where Jane has to dig a bullet out of her belly, which fails to save her life. Jane goes back to her corporate world with the news that The East has dissolved after this event and tries to reinsert herself into her life. But when news comes that The East is reconstituting, Jane finds herself drawn back to them. Unfortunately, her cover has been blown...
Brit Marling, who plays Jane in this movie, writes unexpected roles for herself. She's got the look of a conventional leading actress, but she manifestly refuses to parlay that into a conventional film career. No hero's girlfriend roles for her. No romcom heroines. Her taste in stories runs to creepy samplings of a dystopian post-capitalist world, where matters of identity are in flux and where paranoia is a reasonable response to a world that's darker than you think. In principle, I admire this, and I've liked, more or less, all of the film's I've seen which Marling has written (well, co-written, anyway). I like this film, too, to a point. This is a film that's all mood and its mood is cool and detached. It reminds me a bit of David Cronenberg, though without Cronenberg's intellectual rigor. This is a world in collapse, whether it's the wreckage in which those outside the dominant class squat or the cold, joyless corridors of affluence and power. Both of these settings are heavily coded for their ideological significance.
This is a film that's more about ideologies than characters and it's here that the film gets itself into trouble. For one thing, it's lacking in nuance. The targets of The East's pranks/attacks thoroughly deserve what they get, to the point where they function as the villains in a melodrama (which, technically, is what they are, I guess). While there's a bit of selection bias here given that The East picks particularly reprehensible targets, there's a selection bias on the part of the filmmakers, too. This becomes slightly ridiculous when one realizes that the targets have been chosen for personal reasons, too, which tends to explain away ideological positions as personal vendettas rather than as principled stands. That both Izzy and Benji come from a position of privilege is troubling, too. Suggested, but unexamined, is a queer subtext in which Izzy has been driven from her home by homophobia, but the film never really explores this, just as it never really explores Jane's Christianity (or, for that matter, the collision of the two in a scene where the members of The East play spin the bottle). The idea that the East is overtly socialist is onscreen and prominent almost from the get go, as demonstrated by a dinner scene in which everyone at the table is wearing a straight jacket, but never discussed as a viable alternative to the world from which Jane has come. It's seductive to her, regardless, but this is muddied by Jane's attraction to Benji. Taken as an overall pattern, this is frustrating and tends to make the film's ending less plausible.
This isn't really an actor's film even though it has good actors. Apparently, Marling's approach to film has big league admirers. Where her previous films have featured mostly unknown actors, this film has Patricia Clarkson, Julia Ormond, Alexander Skarsgård, Ellen Page. For all that, it's Toby Kebbell who stands out from the cast as Doc. It helps that he has a more rounded character than anyone else in the film--including Marling--but a lot of this is down to his performance making it rounded.
I suppose this is agitprop of a sort, but it's a puzzling kind of agitprop. To an extent, the ending of the film repudiates the kind of prankster terrorism it depicts while seeming to shade into support for more rarefied forms of it. In the montage after Jane breaks with Benji, she seems to become a kind of Julian Assange figure, engaging in a different kind of activism. There's a movie in that, but it's one that this film isn't much interested in.