Spoiler alert: In Zal Batmanglij's recent political thriller The East—which may be this summer's best movie that you'll have to watch on DVD, because it lasted barely a week in your local theater—a young agent for a private security company infiltrates a leftist terrorist group and is able to take them down against great odds . . . because God answers prayer.
That may sound like a summary for some corny Message Movie, but if there's a message in The East, it's more about the evils of corporate greed or the complications of radical idealism. Efficacious prayer isn't The East's message; it's just the film's basic narrative assumption. A first-act prayer determines The East's trajectory no less than it drives Frank Capra's beloved holiday noir It's a Wonderful Life (1946). Remember how It's a Wonderful Life opens with the sounds of people praying for George Bailey, and how the rest of the movie is, in a way, the story of how God and an angel named Clarence answered those prayers? The East—a sexy, gritty thriller infused with the politics of Adbusters—works pretty much the same way.
Co-written by Batmanglij with Brit Marling, who also plays the lead role, the film tells the story of The East, an anarchist group that produces "jams"—acts of artful and sometimes violent terror against large corporations whose work harms people and the environment. Our heroine, Sarah, goes undercover for a private security firm and joins The East in order to undermine their work and bring their members to justice.
Along the way, she falls in love with the group's enigmatic leader, Benji (Alexander Skarsgard, who both acts and looks divine), and her allegiances become torn on multiple levels: between Benji and her boyfriend at home, between the dictates of her job—protect the corporate client from violence—and the pure, eye-for-an-eye mission of The East—we hurt the corporations who are hurting us. These tensions are the film's main narrative hook, and this being mainstream cinema, we have confidence that Sarah will win in the end, though we don't know exactly who she'll win for.
But the film drops a big and unusual clue in its opening act.
Early in The East, while she's preparing to go undercover, we see Sarah driving to work one morning. Her car is tuned to a Christian radio station, and the film really underlines this moment, foregrounding in the audio track the sound of Sarah's radio as the deejay announces that she's listening to (and I paraphrase) "your station for the best Christian music." A few moments later, on the night before she launches her espionage mission, we see Sarah remove a cross pendant from her necklace, hold it tightly in her hand, and ask God to help her "to not be arrogant, but not to be weak." Not to put too fine a point on it, Sarah exchanges the cross for a paperclip, which provides pick-locking salvation when she's handcuffed a few story beats later.
So, in these opening scenes, the film is careful to mark Sarah as religious. On its own (and in the hands of a less precise cinematic storyteller), her pre-espionage prayer could be a throwaway moment, unimportant but for adding color to the character. Coupled with the definite emphasis on Sarah's Christian radio station, however, it's clear that we're being alerted to . . . something.
But what, exactly? In these moments, the film leaves us with the indelible impression that Sarah is a person of deep Christian faith, but it doesn't tell us much else about that faith or why it matters. For most of the rest of The East, in fact, the story appears to pretty much lose Sarah's religion—until the very end (about which, more below).