Film review: The East

A sense of rebellion was in the air as people took their seats at the advance screening of “The East,” a film about eco-terrorism (or eco-activism, depending on how you look at it). Fox 20th Century, the film’s distributor, had banned attendees from bringing phones and other recording devices into the theater, and had hired security to enforce the policy. Already revved up by the film’s content, the audience booed and shouted protests. After the initial uproar, in which many people ceded their iPhones and some people stormed out, the film began.

The opening scene, shot with grainy film, depicts gulls slicked with mud-like oil, struggling for breath. These shots should look familiar to anyone who remembers the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. As more and more gulls appear on screen, a shaky camera cuts to focus on the same thick oil, oozing from the air vents of the home, as a woman’s voice tells us that “when it’s your fault, it shouldn’t be so easy to sleep at night … especially when we know where you live.”

The woman belongs to a group of vandals, who are breaking into the house of the CEO whose oil company was responsible for the spill. “The East,” as they call themselves, dedicate themselves to avenging the suffering of the weak against the abuse of corporate giants. “We want all those who are guilty to experience the terror of their crimes,” like oil spills. Their tactic is to give the unpunished “a taste of their own medicine,” sometimes literally: later in the movie, they feed a drug with terrible side effects to higher-ups of the pharmaceutical company.

Jane Owen, played by actor/screenwriter Brit Marling, is assigned to infiltrate the organization to combat their activities. She does not work for the government, but consults with a private company that provides intelligence to corporations. She wears expensive business suits, has very tame hair, and uses her personal Blackberry to swipe into the high security building.

The Blackberry logo is only one of the many brands that pop up throughout the movie. But in a phone interview, the director and co-screenwriter Zal Batmanglij stressed that this was not meant to be product placement.

“We wanted to make a statement about the branded world we live in,” he said.

Listerine, Feria, and Coke are only a few of the names that show up—but it was not easy to get companies to agree to their cameos. Coke, specifically, was reluctant for the filmmakers to use their product in the way the script called for: when Jane uses a jagged can’s edge to cut her arm open.

The East’s headquarters, on the other hand, are free of branding. The group lives together in a decrepit old house in the middle of the woods, which has decomposed and been reformed by the nature around it. They cook using scavenged food, which is legally required to be thrown out, but is perfectly good. Members play a version of Spin the Bottle, asking to kiss each other’s palms or give minute-long hugs.

But later the same night, they wear masks of the corporate players as they practice poisoning their champagne. The longer Jane spends with them, the more both she and the audience question her understanding of this group and the world that exists outside of it.

“We have nothing to preach,” Batmanglij said. “We just want people to be inspired to think about things differently.” Some people will walk away from this movie entertained but unmoved by, or even further alienated from environmental activism. But others may begin to see what they once thought as waste as potential bounty. That does not necessarily mean pulling a George Costanza and eating out of the garbage. But Breadsmith’s dumpster really is a goldmine.