Online hackers who go by the name “Anonymous” have been getting quite a bit of well-earned buzz. Over the past few years they’ve hacked and posted personal information for fraudulent investment bankers, foreign governments who are anti-civil rights and my personal favorite, the phone numbers and email addresses of the Westboro Baptist Church members plus many, many more groups and individuals. While there’s no doubt that what they’re doing is invasive, devious and sometimes illegal, the group also has a strict set of moral values and a code that, frankly, all human beings should follow. In short, if people wouldn’t behave like power hungry a******s, Anonymous wouldn’t be “forced” to hack their information and provide it to the public for free. If no one in our government or law enforcement is willing to act against bad people who seek to harm others in order to wield power or financially benefit themselves, Anonymous takes matters into their own hands. And, I dig that.
I mention Anonymous because the “environmental terrorist” organization at the heart of “The East” reminds me of them. In this, the latest film by Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling (who made the outstanding “The Sound of My Voice” in 2011) the duo create a fictionalized group of angry tree huggers called The East who wreak havoc on those who poison the earth and the people upon it. Marling plays Sarah, an operative from a high-end firm that specializes in blowing these type of corporate hacker groups to smithereens by placing an undercover operative inside the group in order to bring it down. As the film opens, Sarah infiltrates The East by shedding her rather yuppie personae and becoming a modern day train hopping hobo. As events play out, Sarah, a person who is highly trained and imbued with her own strict moral standards, runs headlong into the very human members of The East who have their own similar yet completely opposite moral code. The stage is set for high drama as Sarah goes deeper into The East and is forced to question who holds the truest set of moral values.
As Sarah finds her way into The East, we discover the group is like a dysfunctional family made up of people with varied but very real reasons to pick the fight they’ve chosen. While at first the filmmakers want us to believe The East is a weird cult, that idea (like many in the film) is quickly abandoned as we get to know the members of the group. Brooding Benji (Skarsgård) is the “but-no-one-is-the-leader” leader of the group and his right-hand man Doc (Kebbell) is the off-beat yet amicable yin to his yang. Ellen Page plays Izzy, a firebrand with true anger and resentment that builds and, rather than seeming like a loose cannon or the kind of character that will lead to the downfall of the group, you grow to like and empathize with her more and more. In fact the movie is constructed and acted so well, you begin to really empathize with the people much as Sarah does and I found myself in similar moral grey areas.
As a big, big fan of “The Sound of My Voice,” I came into “The East” with the highest possible hopes. And although I wouldn’t say I was let down, I felt the film was very good but not great. There are several storylines early on that have huge potential only to be sort of cast aside for the admittedly more exciting high drama and personal conflict in the film. As a result the film feels oddly long even though there was rarely a moment I wasn’t engaged. I love the idea of a firm set up to bring down these undercover hacktivist groups as well. What a great TV show something like “The East” would make and, again, this is a very good, engaging and sometimes thrilling film. I just wish the film were more slimmed down and focused and that the ending packed more of a satisfying punch.