Corporate counter-espionage gets personal
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Photo: [l to r] Ellen Page and Alexander Skarsgård as anarchists in ‘The East’ Rating: PG-13 Grade: A
Sometimes you gain so much more when you have the chance to allow a film to marinate in the critical stew, but generally critics aren’t afforded that possibility too often. We work on a deadline and studios covetously hold onto their films until the last moment, just before our deadlines and their release dates. That’s why I have to give a little extra love to the team behind the new Zal Batmanglij-Brit Marling thriller, “The East.” The press screening was several weeks ago, which means I got to sit with my thoughts longer than usual, and that has revealed a far tastier dish that lingered on my palate.
The story tracks the first big break for Sarah (Marling), an undercover operative with a private security firm hired to handle covert espionage for major corporations. She is assigned to infiltrate an anarchist group that targets businesses suspected of massive cover-ups that impact the health and safety of their customers and the environment. The group’s tactics include exposing top-level management to the company’s dangerous products or other high-risk protocols.
All of which means Sarah has to submerge herself in the wandering anarchist lifestyle, including dumpster diving for food, working her way up the contact network until gaining access to the inner circle headed by Benji (Alexander Skarsgård), the pan-sexual dreamer, and his righteously angry second-in-command, Izzy (Ellen Page). Once inside, the moral tables begin to shift, with Sarah not only getting to know the stories of key followers in the movement but also coming to question the corporate interests she has been enlisted to serve by her coolly brittle boss (Patricia Clarkson).
The fascinating aspect about “The East” is the character of Sarah. You have to go back to the late 1980’s to encounter female protagonists dropped into these kind of morally ambiguous deep cover roles, although it could be argued that Jodie Foster has done her share of this kind of work throughout her career. I’m drawn to a pair of Debra Winger films – “Black Widow” (1987) and “Betrayed” (1988) – that wandered around the same moral landscape found in “The East.”
In “Black Widow,” Winger’s character found herself in pursuit of a femme fatale (Theresa Russell) who seduced wealthy men and then killed them. In order to catch the deadly huntress, Winger had to adopt her tactics, triggering an even deadlier competitive game where each woman sought to lure a hapless target. “Betrayed” more closely serves as a spiritual model for “The East” though with Winger’s agent posing as a salt of the earth truck driver who gets close to a farmer (Tom Berenger) with ties to a white supremacist group. Each instance requires Winger to assume an identity and perspective – which is a departure of sorts since she starts out as a tough but relatively blank slate, driven only by the game of cat and mouse with the antagonists.
Marling’s Sarah is more opaque, an empty soul that does what is necessary to move up the ladder, but we never get the sense that she cares about what great rewards await her. There is no anger or righteous fire in her at the start, but we see the gradual seductive impact of the movement and its leader on her, the dawning awareness and development of a conscience. The question is where will this lead her?
As a co-screenwriter and star, Marling’s previous projects with Batmanglij (“Sound of My Voice”) and Mike Cahill (“Another Earth”) have explored a speculative science fiction angle, and “The East” continues to mine thought-provoking – and still relatively uncharted – territory. But this time, the focus is intensely psychological and remarkably more human, an area most filmmakers fear to tread, especially during the summer blockbuster season.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com