Outside the Paramount theatre in Austin, Texas, there was a conga line snaking through the city double the size of the entire Notting Hill Carnival. The street was a blur of hipster haircuts and boom boxes blaring out Bowie’s greatest hits. There was a man attempting the longest drum solo in history, whist another man was dressed as a squirrel and threatening to jump off a nearby roof. Closing the SXSW film festival in a spectacular fashion was a difficult challenge, but The East, a film which described itself as an ‘eco-terrorist thriller’, somehow fit perfectly into the chaos that had ensued.
After writing 2011’s Sundance underdog Sound of My Voice together, the creative pairing of director Zal Batmanglij and actress Brit Marling have now attempted to make their most commercial project to date with The East, but it’s still unlike anything you’ve seen before.
It stars Ellen Page, Alexander Skarsgård (True Blood), Toby Kebbell (Dead Man’s Shoes) and Shiloh Fernandez (Evil Dead) as members of an anarchist collective called The East. They practice a freegan lifestyle, living in the woods and foraging for food. But they are also eco-terrorists, making attacks on multinational corporations and pharmaceutical companies. Sent undercover to investigate and expose them is Sarah (Brit Marling), who works for a private intelligence film. She lives amongst them and helps them carry out one of their attacks, but as she grows closer to them their hits become more dangerous and the group begins to test her allegiance.
College friends Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling spent two months in 2009 pursuing a moneyless existence to research for the film. They even joined a real-life collective. Marling said, “We wanted to have some adventure, and we didn’t have any money. We learned to hop trains, we learned to sleep on rooftops, we learned to claim the space that feels so private. We joined this anarchist collective.”
The result is an intense anti-capitalist thriller, like Martha Marcy May Marlene meets The Bourne Identity, or a sequel to The Edukators. Watching the film feels like you’re being let in on a secret; being led through a forest and into another way of life. Whether The East intends to inspire your inner anarchist or not is beside the point, however it does catch on to a moment in time when a lot of ‘occupy’ movements are taking place (Wall St/St Paul’s), and everyone is looking for some kind of justice.
Part of this infectious excitement for self-reliance is down to the passionate performances by all the actors. Marling’s Sarah is a Shakespearian beauty but with all the fighting spirit of Katniss Everdeen and Skarsgård has a sexual intensity, while looking like he might turn psychotic at any minute, acing the insecurity of a twentysomething (despite being 36).
The film moves along at a radical pace, bursting with energy and adrenaline. Towards the end, Batmanglij turns up the action to an unrealistic peak and it’s a little disappointing, but the overall message is haunting and the film satisfyingly rebellious. Rarely has the a resistance movement been captured so well on film. On this note, it will be interesting to see how leftist groups respond to The East, especially when you consider that the film was fully funded and will be distributed by Fox Searchlight.
But in any case, this is an intriguing thriller from Batmanglij and Marling, who have proven themselves to be more than just Sundance’s latest breakout talent, but a creative movement waiting to be unleashed.