I was lucky to see an early screening of this film but went in knowing virtually nothing about the plot. I thought that this film, hidden amongst all of the blockbusters of the summer, would be forgotten as soon as I ventured into my next cinematic experience. But it has left a lasting impact on me.
The film follows Sarah (Brit Marling) an undercover private investigator who journeys out to find an environmentalist group called 'the East' that has become a thing of legends and mystery. Her travels see her have to transform herself from the city-sleek woman to a grungy, hippy-esque one who trainhops, practically never showers and is detached from the rest of the world. Enough to limit her suspicion and get in with the East. When she eventually is introduced to this radical group, under unusual circumstances, she has to get them to accept her.
She finds their way of life different but fulfilling. Until she finds out that they truly are as radical as the news casts them. Assisting on their plots she becomes torn between her job and the message the group tells. To get her merit points with the group, she helps them on a plot where they target a pharmaceutical company that have hidden the deadly side effects of their latest drug in order to profit. So the East go undercover and drug the main benefactors with their own drug. Sarah is presented with her first dilemma, warn the people and risk her cover being blown, or turn a blind eye. Deciding to keep her cover she watches these people unknowingly ingest their drug. As days pass it is revealed that some of the CEO's of the company have become sick which coincides with the East releasing a video.
These kinds of plot happens two more times. The second plot sees one of their own get shot and killed which stalls their third and final strike.
The East's final strike involves Sarah playing a pivotal role, one she isn't aware of. She arrives at her office in DC with one of the East members and finds out that her cover had been blown a long time ago as they had always expected that someone undercover would come. Now she has to go and steal a file that identifies all of the undercover agents in her PI firm. Once she enters her office, she tries to warn her boss about the East and their intentions, which are simply blown off. In fact, she is all but told to bury this story about the corrupt business people since they weren't being paid for that, they were only supposed to find the East. But at the same time it is known that she has taken the file. This is where the film comes at a crossroad. This is where the audience themselves are scrambling to decide which path she should take.
1. Should Sarah tell her boss that the leader of the East is outside and he sent her in and that she has the file? Even though her boss would most definitely arrest the leader and stop their reign of terror but nothing else.
2. Give the file to the East, uncover all of the PI's currently in the field so that they couldn't stop people like the East and therefore seek their form of justice?
3. Keep the file and work with the East. But instead of unmasking her fellow colleagues, find them and tell them about all she has learned about their workplace and the corrupt side of the world.
What makes this film so captivating to me is the fact that even you as the audience feel conflicted between the choices the characters present you with. On the one hand, if you were to stop them, you would be lawful and doing what is supposed to be morally correct. But on the other hand, the East only target corporations that cause environmental and social problems but ignore them for the profit. A very relatable story to today's economic situation presented with the 1%.
Although being produced by Fox, it still has the style of Independent films. It allows the beautiful and creative shots to aid the narrative, rather than forcing the narrative onto the viewer. Getting the nitty-gritty of society, the film is reminiscent of Jennifer Lawrence's Winter's Bone as the director doesn't hide from the bad parts be it skinning a squirrel or targeting a corrupt company.
The idea of cults seems to have become a niche for co-writers Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, with their other popular Sundance film Sound of my Voice which has a different, more accepting view on cults. In fact, both Brit and Zal have started to gain attention through their Sundance accepted films, which includes Another Earth. They have a style that enables an audience to feel similar emotions to the characters without forcing upon them. Many films opt for intense music, fast editing or other techniques that warns the audience that something important of suspenseful is coming up. Yet, I think that is what made me more captivated, the fact that I truly was experiencing all of Sarah's dilemas with her rather than watching her.
Even though there are big names who grace this film, including Alex Skarsgård as the intense yet comforting cult leader and the convincing extremist Ellen Page, Brit still shines as the leading lady. Some may wonder if Brit gave herself the lead role simply because she co-wrote the film but having her play Sarah gives the character some innocence. Instead of expecting a performance from a more well known actor we can see how a person may feel if coming across a cult. That and Brit actually spent a time with cults, not as research but simply out of curiosity. Meaning she could pull from real life experience with similar kinds of cults and draw that into her character. If you have seen her in any other of her films, you would also know that she has a way to draw the audience in. Not simply with looks and charm, but her calm approach to acting and living out her character. She plays a leading lady without the stereotype of a 'strong' woman, but rather a fearless woman.
If the plot is not enough to convince you of the East's potential, the fact that brothers Tony and Ridley Scott are producers on the film. Just like their films, the East has the potential to grab the attention of both the mainstream audiences as well as independent film watchers.
The film brings up ideas that are very relevant to present day. The whole idea of ignorance is bliss seems to have become a belief many people live by. Rather than learning the true, often harsh reality people would rather hear what the corporations tell us. But as more and more comes out about the government, monopolies and such, the East puts forth an almost accusatory idea that we let ourselves be tricked as long as it doesn't have a bad effect on us. It isn't until issues raised by groups disturb our lives do we speak out. Although the East is very much the extreme, it get us thinking of how much we let others get away with.
At the screening, we were fortunate enough to have the director and co-writer Zal Batmanglij present. He talked about the writing process with Brit and their shared summer staying with cults. In fact, it was an expected interview which is why I wont recount it word for word. But there was one section that stuck with me. Zal talked about, despite the fact that Fox was producing them, they were still allowed their creative freedom. But this film wasn't about the paycheck at the end. He explained that he didn't care if the film became a huge international success, but would prefer if each person who watched the film left talking and thinking about it and telling their friends. And clearly their plan worked.
All I can say is that out of all the blockbusters I've seen, this one has gotten me actively telling people to go watch it.