Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard, Alia Shawkat, Logan Miller, Kai Lennox, Katherine Waterston, James Le Gros, Matt Malloy.
Not to be confused with Arthur Penn’s moody 1975 noir-like thriller of the same name, the sixth feature film from auteur filmmaker Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy, Wendy And Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff, etc) is an ecological thriller, although it is steeped in the same atmosphere of paranoia that propelled some those great 70s classics.
Here a trio of environmentally minded activists take matters into their own hands and set out to blow up a nearby hydroelectric dam. Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) is a disenchanted young man who works at an organic community farm and has a deep interest in protecting the environment. His girlfriend Dena (Dakota Fanning) comes from a more privileged background, and she works at a nearby health spa. Dena comes to believe that simply working on a community farm and watching socially conscious films doesn’t go far enough to satisfy their concerns about the environment and the damage done to the earth by “the ticking time bomb of industrialisation” that is poisoning the rivers and destroying native forests.
The pair hook up with the enigmatic Harmon (an almost unrecogniseable Peter Sarsgaard), a former marine and explosive expert. In the early sections of the film we follow their elaborate and careful planning as they gather the equipment they need, which is not always easy in this post 9/11 world, where it is almost impossible to buy quantities of fertiliser without adequate identification.
But having managed to obtain all the ingredients for their bomb and buying a boat (the name of which gives the film its title) they blow up the dam. But in the aftermath of the explosion and flooding that follows, an innocent camper is killed and the film’s tone undergoes a dramatic shift. The three central characters wrestle with ethical dilemmas and dwell upon the unforeseen consequences of their wayward idealism. Guilt slowly consumes the characters, and they turn on each other as paranoia, doubt and suspicion colour their fragile relationship.
The script has been written by Reichardt and her regular collaborator Jonathan Raymond and emphasises character ahead of plot. Reichardt and Raymond also remain nonjudgmental about the characters and their actions, although the film can be seen as a cautionary tale about extremism. Reichardt’s style is also oblique and not everything is explicitly spelled out for the audience. And also the film ends on an abrupt note, one of Reichardt’s trademark stylistic touches, which leaves the audience to ponder what might happen.
Thus Night Moves doesn’t have the same impact as that other recent eco-terrorism thriller The East, which was much more hard hitting and whose complex characters operated in a murky world and whose actions were coloured in shades of grey.
Reichardt’s films have always been shot on a minimal budget – the revisionist western Meek’s Cutoff is probably her biggest budget film to date probably costing as much as all of her other films combined – but here the constraints of the budget and limited resources hold back the film. After seeing the three gather all their resources for their act of terrorism we never get to see the explosion – we only hear it off screen – and the second half of the films lacks the same air of tension and expectant build up. It all seems rather anticlimactic and vaguely disappointing.
Eisenberg seems perfectly cast here and delivers another wonderfully nuanced and subtle performance as the socially awkward, introspective, humourless and solemn Josh, who initially seems a familiar character in his repertoire on the surface. He manages to convey the internal conflict his character faces. But there is a darker nature to his misguided character that we don’t often see in Eisenberg.
Sarsgaard is chilling as the slightly unbalanced Harmon, while Fanning brings an earthy quality to her performance.
Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt (Zodiac, The Bling Ring, etc) captures some poetic images, and his vision of stark woodlands and environments slowly being laid waste underscore the themes of the film. In exploring the connection between man and his environment, Night Moves is a perfect companion piece to Reichardt’s body of work. Like most of her films though, Night Moves is a slow burning mood piece that slowly builds atmosphere, although its leisurely pace will not suit everyone.