The voice of a confident young woman recites a litany of balance to the 1%'s muscle, the corporations. "If you pollute our lives we'll pollute yours. If you spy on us we'll spy on you," and so on. A unit of balaclava-ed activists scale the walls of a modern mansion and pour sludgy oil retrieved from a dumping site in the ocean into the ducts of the house. CCTV footage shows it oozing through the vents of the luxurious rooms. This is the work of The East, an anti-corporate terrorist group.
In a decidedly clean and corporate office complex, Jane Owen heads through security barriers and clouds of coffee-clutching office lifers to her interview with the boss, the woman who plucked her from her nascent career in the FBI to work for this private corporate black ops company. Jane's got the job. Bye bye, hubby, it's off to live as a wandering freegan and infiltrate. Her moment comes up and she allows circumstance to work for her and by hook and crook she's in.
From this point on the film splits between its mainstream duties as a genre piece and the deeper themes this filmmaking team have already proved ready for in previous work. Infiltration movies like Donnie Brasco or The Departed depend on the lead's ability to render their acceptance by a sub-society hostile to them. We've seen so many of these on screens great and small that it takes a lot for a character to do this. They have to get past us before any crypto group has their turn. If this isn't dealt with then there has to be something else on the film's mind that can allow too easy an entrance. So how does The East do?
Not bad, as it happens but keeps some cards close to its chest until the end. While there is real work put into the infiltration scenes we move on to the realm of acceptance a little too swiftly. And then there is the issue of Jane (undercover name Sarah) reappearing at the right time to take part in each new action (called jams) and being absorbed without question. There is extra work applied to the sustenance of this trust but no one seems to twig. This is twisted in the final act and makes sense but creates a distracting tension before that moment.
Now I'm going to do something I loathe when others do it and question consistency of character. The dinner scene at the The East's headquarters involves a test. We have already seen Jane praying with her crucifix necklace in her hand and listening to Christian radio in the car. I knew the story that the test is based on, it's a common modern parable used by holy rolling preachers and muffin-fattened Roman bishops alike. There is no way she wouldn't have known it. Is her puzzlement at the setup good acting on the character's part or are we really meant to accept that her response is ingenuous? She does use her reaction creatively in the following scene which leads to think the filmmakers just liked the test scene's reveal and the opportunity for Jane's further ingratiation. Anyway...
So, Jane as Sarah infiltrates the East and we meet the gang and hear their ideas and travel with them on a jam. There's a lot of plot covered in that but the more I think about this film its thematic work over its narrative. The latter is clear and constant, this is not a slow film and it keeps the political thriller aspects visible but what it does more seriously is examine the thinking of one of the oppressor's agents and how it changes and develops and to what extent (that's for the third act so no details here). And this is where I have to talk about these mysterious "filmmakers" I've been mentioning. First, Brit Marling.
Brit Marling's story is a good one. She emerged from acting school with the notion of creating good roles for herself through writing and selling the scripts along with herself. Armed with an aristocratic beauty that would grace any Hollywood screen and a clear intelligence that seems unmaskable and would prevent her taking the lead in any rom com, she already had assets. But her scripts had ideas and, working closely with the directors she interested in the projects, managed to weave those in with a kind of cinema that looked indy but had plot and characterisation that wouldn't threaten the hardest lined mainstream adherent.
Another Earth takes an old sci-fi proposition and wraps it around a strong story of redemption. The Sound of My Voice took time travel and used it for an elaborate trust tale (it's also an infiltration movie). There's a spookiness to those pieces that is carried into The East quite effortlessly and it's also subject to its own premise: this entire film is an act of infiltration. With a cast that includes James Franco (here with big specs and beard that makes him look like a young Coppola), Alexander Skarsgard as a quietly tortured founder, and a firey Ellen Page whose extra zeal is explained in a few scenes both angering and heartrending. Patricia Clarkson is a terrifying iceberg as the private enterprise spy queen. Dig? Marling and director Zac Batmangli are getting high proilfe casts now.
The mainstream is accepting their perfomance in tests. There is little if anything new about the aesthetics of their films or anything to challenge Hollywood the way Blair Witch did. But with a 70s movie brat's confidence with narrative and the warm swelling anger of a young Jane Fonda, they are making their way into the big room. Jane (or is she Sarah) stares out at us in the final frame of the film as though she has emerged from a freshly landed independent pod. She has more to offer. Are we ready?