Is there morality in terrorism?
The anarchist members of The East, a new film by The Sound of My Voice creative partners Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, would argue yes. In the thriller, a young, headstrong operative, Sarah Moss (Marling), is hired by an elite agency to infiltrate an eco-environmental domestic terrorist group "wreaking havoc on corporations as acts of revenge," says Ellen Page, who plays Izzy, an angry, damaged member of the collective.
Led marginally by Benji (Alexander Skarsgard), the group operates democratically and lives, eats and sleeps together deep in the woods. Benji becomes "fascinated by Sarah," says Skarsgard, as he begins to school her on their simple philosophy: "Benji believes in eye for an eye," Skarsgard says. "He attacks."
Inspired by an era when "the Internet has put power back in the hands of individuals," says Marling, The East sources a host of movements, from Freegans (who attempt to live off the grid by scrounging for food) and the Occupy movement to more radical groups like Anonymous and the Weather Underground.
But as The East ruthlessly targets groups who propagate and profit off of destruction (including pharmaceutical giants disseminating bad drugs and companies willfully polluting innocent communities), Sarah's loyalty begins to waver.
"The ethics of all of it become very muddled," says Page, particularly when murder's on the menu. "The question is, morally, where do you draw the line?" adds Skarsgard. "How far are you willing to go for this cause?"
Following Sound of My Voice, a psychological thriller focused on the world of cults, Marling and Batmanglij were inspired by palpable tension they tapped into during their travels. "It seems like across all generations there seems to be a sense of unrest and confusion about where we are and how we've gotten here and where we go next. There's fiscal cliffs and school shootings. It's a very strange time," says Marling.
The East braids Bourne-like espionage into a modern eco-puzzle. But "it's not preachy," says Skarsgard. "It's complicated. The way life is and reality is."
Page is excited to see how the film's first audience at Sundance Film Festival later this month responds. "I think it presents some interesting gray areas and important questions."