Twitter Plot Summary: An intelligence agent goes undercover with an eco-terrorist group called The East and finds herself drawn to their cause.
Five Point Summary:
1. Undercover, yeah! Wait, they’re eating from bins?!
2. The all naked bathing competition.
3. All this talk of jam is making me hungry.
4. A swim in a toxic dumping ground. Shabba!
5. A tough decision to make.
The East is a story concerned primarily with big business and the effects said big business has on the natural world. We’re also incredibly wasteful, let’s admit it. The amount of food that gets thrown away daily in the Western world is frankly an outrage, and we’re reminded of this fact all too infrequently.
Sent undercover to infiltrate a gang of freegans – essentially those who take things, specifically food, that have been thrown away by normal folks – called The East, Brit Marling’s operative Jane finds herself conflicted between the ideals of the group she’s been sent to spy on and her responsibilities to the big intelligence firm she works for.
Whilst undercover with The East, Jane has to be a willing participant in what are called “Jams”, anarchist attacks on a specific big name company or group with ties to shady environmental dealings. Early on in the first Jam, where The East plan to poison the members of a big pharmaceutical company, Jane secretly calls her boss to ask if she should intervene. The chilling and somewhat amusing response? “They’re not our clients.” The wonderful world of big business, right there.
The group themselves are an interesting bunch of outsiders. There’s a deaf girl, Ellen Page’s Izzy (who we discover has very personal reasons for being there), there’s Doc who has been poisoned with an antibiotic that is degenerating his nervous system, and there’s their leader Benji, played with brooding charisma by Alexander Skarsgard. There’s always the temptation to paint eco terrorists out as tree hugging, long haired, unwashed/unkempt hippies in true stereotypical fashion, but The East shies away from this and gives each member of the group a reason for being there, even Jane, and goes to great lengths to fully personalise each member of the group. These are people who have been damaged through various means and are united with a common goal which isn’t limited to tying themselves to trees or sailing into the path of a whaling ship.
Environmental stories can go one of two ways, and there’s not much of a divide between them. It can be laborious and preachy, irritating its audience by ramming its message down your throat, or it can be a thoughtful exercise without being overt about its intentions. The East falls into the latter camp solely because of Marling’s conflicted intelligence agent, finding herself slowly drifting away from her standard civilised existence and towards the more “out there” lifestyle led by The East. I can kind of see her perspective – where else could you find yourself sat at a dining table in a straightjacket, given a bowl of food and a spoon and told to feed yourself?
If there’s one thing that Marling and director Zak Batmanglij’s script does well is make you think a bit more about environmental damage, and the impact we all have on it by supporting the companies who cause massive amounts of damage with barely an afterthought. Even if its ideals are somewhat out of reach of the majority of us, The East personalises the matter, gives it a face and makes us at least acknowledge that things could be changed for the better.