The direction of east is linked to light. The sun rises from the east, ex oriente lux, a sign of dawn. The East, a new eco-terrorism thriller, written by Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling, and directed by Batmanglij, taps into this "rising" motif. Thematically, the film explores illegal activism efforts rising to save the planet from environmental and pharmaceutical disasters caused by corporations.
The story centers on an undercover operative renamed "Sarah Moss" (Brit Marling) as a trickster female protagonist. A former FBI agent, she works for Hiller Brood, a powerful private intel company; Hiller Brood is headquartered in Virginia, surrounded by pastoral horse farms. Moss's new assignment: to infiltrate the eco-terrorism collective known as The East. The East targets business executives responsible for ecological and medical mayhem, related to catastrophes. As Sharon (Patricia Clarkson), HB's imposing boss, gives Sarah the top secret assignment, she cautions her not to let high intelligence fuel her ego. Later, Sarah tells her sympathetic boyfriend Tim (Jason Ritter) that she's headed to Dubai. But in truth, Sarah's about to dye her hair blonde, use her new identity, and hang out in counter-culture pit stops, hoping to meet eco-terrorist types.
Eventually injured, Sarah is brought to a woodland hideaway by Luca (Shiloh Fernandez), who helps her receive medical treatment from Doc (Toby Kebbell), a member of The East. Much of the film is set at an abandoned, burned out mansion in a Pennsylvania forest, where the secretive eco-action group plans to hide out for a few months. The East is funded and run by the charismatic Benji (Alexander Skarsgard), but at its heart is the dynamic Izzy (Ellen Page). It is here that the group plans their "jams"; they have three big ones lined up to complete. Sarah is not readily accepted, but gradually, she earns her way into their tight circle, and even participates in their "jams."
The East believes in ritual, and we see many examples of ritualized behavior at their wooded home, such as the dining ritual (feeding each other with wooden spoons while bound in white straitjackets -- a metaphor for their group identity and cooperative living), to collective baptismal bathing in the nearby river, to the Bacchanalian champagne "preparation party" in masks around a huge fire outside. In the daylight, Izzy demands that Sarah gut a dead stag -- a symbol of the Artemis-Acteon story in Greek mythology -- so it won't go to waste. "Freeganism" is another topic in the film, but this specific scene is connected to the concept of the ultimate sacrifice made by the deer; it is echoed later at the end of Act Two when Sarah must cut into the stomach of a dying member of The East to try to save her. After one successful "jam," the members howl like wolves out of their car windows, embodying a sense of the wild and a closeness to nature.
Sarah goes in and out of The East's forest hideout twice. She's forced to go back for a third final time and tries to get Benji to leave. The trickster's shadow weighs heavily on her. The murky psychic line between her "real life" as a private agent, living with Tim in D.C., and her life as a faux terrorist, blurs. Sarah begins to have romantic feelings for Benji, and also sees that the corporations The East protests are morally wrong: Corporate greed versus what's best for the planet. She's been hired to do a job, but her sympathies are increasingly with The East.
Marilyn Jurich, in her book Scheherazade's Sisters: Trickster Heroines and Their Stories in World Literature, classifies female tricksters in folklore as "trickstars," who, among other traits, are "stars in trickery" (xiii). The role of Sarah Moss could be categorized as a trickstar.
It's a joy to watch a film with such a strong female protagonist directly involved in each scene; Sarah is well played by Marling and co-scripted by her. We don't often get to watch "the female trickster as protagonist" in movies. And that's too bad. Spies or secret agents are contemporary tricksters. From the beginning of this film, Sarah is presented as tricky; she asks Sharon to select her for the job -- that The East would not be expecting her. Sarah cheats on her boyfriend, fools The East, puts on a false front for her boss, and for a while, deceives herself.
Sarah's trickster arc in the film is ironic; eventually she is "tricked" by her own journey. Sarah becomes smitten with Benji, learns the truth about The East's claims against corporate greed, and wonders why she's serving Hiller Brood with its corporate clients. But through her spying ways, Sarah brings purification and transformation in the end -- a trickster move. One of the key characteristics of a trickster is "Situation-Invertor," according to William Hynes in Mythical Trickster Figures, edited by Hynes and William Doty. Although some may not be satisfied with the film's ending, Sarah does invert the situation, in keeping with the classical trickster motif. At a time when discussions on climate change, ecology, health, and the state of the planet are crucial, The East enlightens by raising important questions, and maybe even provides a few answers.
Laura Shamas writes about myth, folklore and film.