Spoiler alert: This review may contain spoilers… read at your own discretion.
This story is about a private spy, Sarah Moss (Brit Marling), who infiltrates an anarchist group who are hell-bent on getting their revenge on corporate criminals. The East are a team of people who are personally tormented by the actions of pharmaceutical giants, coal and oil producers, and, as they later become aware, private espionage.
Sarah is a somewhat timid yet highly motivated spy who is urged by her boss, Sharon (Patricia Clarkson), to not become soft and lose sight of her mission of providing details about the members of The East. Under the guise of a drifting “freegan,” Sarah becomes an accomplice in kidnapping and mass poisoning events orchestrated by her unassuming anarchist pals.
Towards the end of the film, Sarah starts a romance with Benji (Alexander Skarsgȧrd) and pulls a bullet out of Izzy (Ellen Page) with her bare hands, right before Izzy dies from her wound. As anticipated, Sarah becomes attached to The East members – or at least to their cause.
What strikes me as astonishing about Sarah is that she finds strength in her sensitivity. She senses things that are very subtle and uses that knowledge to her advantage (of course, in part due to her espionage training). She convinces Eve, a young female member of The East, to not “throw everything away because these people have convinced you that no one could love you but them.”
Doc is the group’s medic, a young man motivated by the tragic loss of both his sister and his motor skills after enduring the side effects of a pharmaceutical drug: Danoxin. He inspires immense pity and sorrow but there is something noble about his position in the group. The first jam that Sarah takes part in is to avenge him and his sister against the pharmaceutical giant McCabe-Grey. They disguise themselves and slip Danoxin into the champagne of the organization’s members; media coverage follows the victims as they begin reporting grave side effects from their own drug.
When Doc can’t control his tremors while trying to remove a bullet from Izzy’s chest, Sarah steps in and tells Doc to direct her through the surgery. She successfully removes the bullet with her bare hands through Doc’s direction. It’s a powerful scene that displays Doc’s value of life and Sarah’s ability to act quickly under pressure.
Izzy is a deeply hurt, cruel and hot-headed member who is persistently undermining Benji’s authority. From the day of Sarah’s arrival, Izzy is very weary of her involvement in the group’s activities. She is whiny, controlling and highly confrontational; her emotional defences are built high and strong because of her strained relationship with her father.
She orchestrates a ‘jam’ targeting her own father, in which she personally drugs him, kidnaps him and his wife, and forces them at gunpoint to get into toxic water. Having such an intimate connection to this cause very clearly takes its toll on her emotional well-being and inevitably results in her death.
Benji is an ironic character because he plays the role of ‘leader’ in an anarchist group. In harmony with the stereotypical personality of a social outcast, he is both cynical and self-righteous but the consistency in his vision makes him likeable. He dominates conversation and commands respect through his mysterious allure and curiously warm heart. Although there’s part of him that pisses you off, it’s hard not to feel excited when he and Sarah hook up in the woods.
The defining characteristic of anarchist collectives is the respect for individuality and for personal differences. This eclectic group reflects those values and inevitably subtly sends the message to viewers that without a cohesive vision and some structural integrity, chaos ensues. Sarah’s rogue mission insinuated by the images in the final credits establishes the idea that there is more than one way to rebel against the machine of capitalism, and that perhaps some are more effective than others.
By Elyse Turpin