‘The East’ melds genres, captivates

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Author: Tess Langan

“The East” might be a movie about spies.

Writer and actress Brit Marling plays Sarah Moss, a secret agent who goes undercover to foil the terrorist plots or “jams” of an environmental anarchist collective called the East before they force CEOs to skinny-dip in lethal lakes polluted by their own plants or give pharmaceutical employees a literal taste of their own medicine.

But “The East” might also be about love, or dumpster-diving, conspicuous consumption or the hopelessness hiding behind hipsterism.

The movie, also starring Ellen Page and Alexander Skarsgaard, jumps between the staid sheets of a city apartment to the belly-button kisses of a consensual version of spin the bottle, from the security checks and pencil skirts of a secret service agency to straitjacket dinners where members of the East feed each other by leveraging their see-sawing spoons like drawbridges.

Speaking alongside several other members of the cast and crew at a roundtable event last Saturday, Marling said she hoped the screenplay would defy the narrative snores of neat categorization.

“People consume so much television now; they binge watch” Marling said, noting a recent weekend lost to Downton Abbey. “We were trying to write something as a sort of Venn diagram of a love story and an espionage thriller. We try to stay ahead of our audience.”

They seem to have succeeded. By its conclusion, it is still unclear if “The East” is love story or an espionage thriller and if it should end with a shakedown or a kiss.

“The East” also possesses a daring duplicity and duality — an inversion of the status quo– which makes it both interesting and refreshing to watch.

Marling and director Zal Batmanglij play with the paradoxes of a world where college does not enlighten but rather disillusions, where drugs kill, garbage keeps people alive and where women are not too soft, but too hard.

The members of the East are practicing freegans– they live off of the refuse of others. Thus, the grime of garbage sustains life while “life-saving” drugs make it so that people can no longer recognize their own faces in the mirror; they are a poison not a panacea.

In a similar upside-downing of the understood, Sarah starts out undercover within the anarchist collective, but, soon, she is undercover in her own life. When she comes home after her first task, her live-in boyfriend wakes up to find her sleeping curled on the floor. By the end of the movie, she pulls an apple out of the trash at the corporate headquarters of her firm, bites into it and proclaims through the spittle and crunch: “See, it’s good.”

In spite of writing her into existence, the complexity of Sarah made her character hard to locate for Marling.

She talks about the “Oh-shit” moment when she realized that she would be playing the part of Sarah.

“It’s really difficult to find a level of honesty with her,” Marling said. “There are so many layers of deceit.”

In “The East”, there are the layers viewers can see, like the layering of the romance on top of espionage thriller or the “layers of deceit” of duplicitous double agents.

But behind its visible layers are snippets of colors and conversations–layers of real-life experience.

For two months during the summer of 2009, Marling and co-writer Batmanglii joined an anarchist collective and practiced freeganism as part of a protest against consumerism.

“We learned to hop trains, we learned to sleep on rooftops,” she said as a piece of advice.

So whether “The East” is about spies or dumpsters, desire or deceit, its reality exists outside of the layers which constitute it.

To make a movie, one must first live it.

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