The anti-corporation thriller movie has been done many times--particularly during the Bush administration--but there is something about The East that makes it seem to be one of the most standout of its ilk in quite some time. Following former FBI agent Sarah Moss (Brit Marling, who co-wrote the script with the director of the film, Zal Batmanglij), as she transitions into a private company called Hiller Brood, The East focuses on vengeance of the most exacting kind. But ire for corporations is only a small portion of the message that comes across in the narrative. Among other themes, there's also those of allegiance to the right people, the subjectivity of ethics and the fatalism of love. While it may sound nearly impossible for a film to adequately and brilliantly tackle all of these motifs, The East does it quite effortlessly.
Sarah's nervousness about being hired for the job is assuaged when Sharon (Patricia Clarkson), the head of Hiller Brood, displays enough trust not only to give her the position, but to assign her the task of infiltrating the anarchist movement known as The East. Their latest act of terrorism involved dousing a CEO's home in oil (the CEO in question was, naturally, the head of an oil company). Their activities have prompted several corporations to enlist the help of Hiller Brood to diminish further potential damage to corporate interests. Sarah is initially excited to be given such significant responsibility, and her enthusiasm pays off when she befriends one of the key members of the movement, Luca (Shiloh Fernandez). When she finds out who Luca is after they escape police arrest, she deliberately cuts her arm so that she'll bring her back to their headquarters.
Once there, essentially all the members are distrustful of her presence, particularly Izzy (Ellen Page), the youngest of the group. Regardless of this innate skepticism, the leader of The East, Benji (Alexander Skarsgard), requests Sarah's presence at dinner that night--albeit in a straightjacket. When she reluctantly arrives at the table wearing said psych ward essential, she finds that everyone else is also wearing one. Perplexed by Benji's askance that she eat her food, she removes her spoon from the bowl in front of her and proceeds to eat from it like an animal. After she is finished, the members of The East look at one another and proceed to spoon feed the person next to them with their mouths. Vexed by her quote unquote failure to pass the test of selflessness, Sarah storms out of the room, only to be followed by Benji and convinced to stay longer--that is, if she's "soft" enough to.
Each day, Sarah grows more and more accustomed to The East's way of life. Eating from the trash and bathing in a lake seem all but commonplace to her--though she still struggles to condone the acts of violence The East carries out to make their point. But then, as Izzy says to her CEO father at one point in the film, "You know that saying, 'Two wrongs don't make a right'? I'd say whoever came up with that had never been wronged.'" It's true, in fact, that most of the members of The East have been directly affected by some sort of corporate ill. Doc (Toby Kebbell), the resident doctor of the group, is especially vehement about anti-pharmaceutical action after prescribing himself and his sister with a drug that includes the potential side effect of physical and mental deterioration. Izzy's own passion for The East stems from her father owning a company that dumps toxic waste into the lakes and rivers of a small town. Every single person in the movement has their reasons--but Sarah's reason is altogether different from the others' in that it is her affection for Benji that ultimately pulls her in completely.
Marling and Batmanglij, who previously worked together on 2011's Sound of My Voice, spent two months practicing freeganism in 2009, which is, in part, what gave them the inspiration to write The East. The anti-corporate sentiment developed on its own, with Marling noting that these entities are generally more powerful and unimpeachable than any government. The irony of this is that, throughout the film, product placements like Feria and McDonald's force you to realize that no matter how much contempt we have for corporations, they're an unavoidable, everyday staple in our lives. Plus, you can't stop an American from stuffing his face with the options on the Dollar Menu.
The ultimate aim of The East isn't to entirely disregard the necessity (though that might be too strong a word) of corporations, but to promote the idea that keeping these companies in check is of significant value to the global population. What is more, as Izzy so eloquently seethes to her father, it isn't fair that the rich CEOs, CFOs and COOs of major corporations are allowed to shield themselves behind gated communities and golf courses from the havoc they so often wreak upon the people who can't afford to throw money at a problem. And it is this salient point that should make audiences hopeful that the collaborations between Marling and Batmanglij are only beginning.