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).
That's not the say that the bulk of the film is irreligious. Batmanglij and Marling paint The East as a cloistered community of individuals who have seen the light. Some are more radical in their ideology—Ellen Page's Izzy has fire in her veins—while others (especially a young doctor played by a grave, tender Toby Kebbell) see The East as a path of personal salvation. They live in seclusion not only because they are fugitives, but also because they have separated themselves from the corporatized and corrupted world. Their members undergo a baptism ritual. They celebrate the earth's natural bounty. They serve each other's needs selflessly, feeding one another in one scene, and later, playing the sweetest, most altruistic game of Spin the Bottle you've ever witnessed. (Don't snicker. It's oddly affecting.)
This authentic spirituality draws Sarah in—that, and the fact that however misguided and violent the tactics of The East, their cause is just. The corporations they are targeting—the clients of Sarah's private security firm—are getting away with murder and more. Batmanglij and Marling don't craft an apologetics of terror in The East, but each of the fictional companies in the film is based on actual companies that are doing actual harm—pharmaceutical firms whose drugs have damaged patients with permanent side effects, energy companies who have polluted water systems and poisoned nearby residents.
Once Sarah learns about The East's sources of inspiration, she finds that she's in a moral gray area—both her newfound collective and her company are willing to hurt people in order to see their kingdoms come. As the film builds to its climactic closing scene, Sarah will be forced either to help The East pull off another jam—one with lives at stake—or help her company perpetuate corporate tyranny. By then, she's wavered so much that we can't tell which side she's on. Is she on the side of The East and its progressive yet transgressive mission? Or is she on the side of her company and its laissez-faire ideology?
As it turns out, Sarah is on the side of the angels. She upends everyone, nailing the anarchists before they hurt more people, but also subverting her greedy security firm. The ending does not exactly come as a shock—as the film's righteous core, Sarah is bound to find the righteous path—but I was surprised by it all the same because of the way it uses Sarah's faith.
Again, we've not seen nor heard of this faith since we saw her listening to Christian radio and praying in the film's opening moments. But in the end, as we learn that Sarah has found a way to compromise both her allegiances in order to perform real acts of justice, we hear via voiceover a repeat of her Act One prayer: "Help me to not be arrogant, but not to be weak." In the final scene, we discover that her prayer was being answered all along, and that her prayer, indeed, was the clue to the film's ultimate outcome. She's been humble enough to listen and learn, and strong and brave enough to think for herself, to discover a righteous and risky third way between two right-sounding sides.
Frank Capra's sentimental (if powerful) Wonderful Life aside, you'd be hard pressed to find many more Hollywood films that use prayer in this way—as a straightforward storytelling device, a sensible and this-worldly justification of a narrative outcome. Prayer can be an ultra-supernatural force, as in The Exorcist (1973) and a legion of fellow religious shock pictures. Prayer can be a source of good humor—I'm fond of Tom Hanks' baseball manager making a just-in-case sign of the cross before a game in A League of Their Own (1992), or better yet, Will Ferrell's "Dear Baby Jesus" sacrilege in Talladega Nights (2006). It can also be a harbinger of doom, as when Samuel L. Jackson kneels at his bedside during the opening credits of Neil Labute's Lakeview Terrace (2008) before rising to terrorize his neighbors for the rest of the film, or, more famously, when Robert Mitchum's serial killer "Preacher" in The Night of the Hunter (1955) inquires of the Lord the identity of his next victim: "Well now, what's it to be, Lord? Another widow?"
In most of these films and their cinematic peers, prayer is depicted as ridiculous, inert or insane. That's pretty well in keeping with the representation of prayer in mainstream commercial cinema—and indeed, pretty consistent with the way prayer can feel or sound in the modern world, even for those who try to practice it regularly. So when Sarah holds her cross and prays her prayer early in The East—in a close-up shot that lingers for a punctuated moment—I took note, wondering whether we'd be guided toward seeing her and her faith as silly, ineffectual, or misguided. As it turns out, The East doesn't contain a critique of the act of prayer at all. Prayer is just Sarah's Rosebud, the thing that explains her, that gives us the clue to who she really is and what she was aiming to do all along.
I don't know anyone like Sarah the Secret Agent, but I do know a lot of people like Sarah the Christian. The most unusual aspect of The East is that it captures, whether it intends to or not, the very usual, quotidian quality of prayer as it plays out in people's lives. It's quiet, private, personal. I said earlier that God answers Sarah's prayer, but of course the film doesn't make this claim. It just shows a woman who peers over the edge of a potential fall and asks for strength and bravery, looking to some hoped-for, metaphysical source of strength.