Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard and Alia Shawkat
Directed by Kelly Reichardt
From Cinedigm, Maybach Films and RT Features
Suspense is the star of Kelly Reichardt’s cold eco-thriller Night Moves
by Michael Clawson of Terminal Volume
The opening moments of Kelly Reichardt’s hauntingly bleak Night Moves re-establish the director’s brand of proto-realism: characters wander, stare, skulk, sit, stand, lean, ponder, mumble and drive, though no two at the same time. To find comparably one-tracked, and terminally silent, characters we have to reach back to 1968, when men in monkey suits did a 20-minute cold-open for 2001: A Space Odyssey.
This is an excruciatingly nuanced method. Slow and agonizing, and yet also perceptive and whisper-soft. This methodical pace and volume is the hallmark of Reichardt, whose work was first widely seen in Wendy and Lucy, in which Michelle Williams camped around a Northwestern town with a dog. Williams returned for Reichardt’s next film, Meek’s Cutoff, a period piece about settlers and their clueless prairie guide. The film’s tone and half-muffled dialogue baffled audiences and critics alike.
In Reichardt’s Night Moves, which she co-wrote with frequent collaborator and Mildred Pierce writerJonathan Raymond, the director doesn’t stray too far from those flat, realistic performances that have marked her previous pictures. The film opens on Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) and Dena (Dakota Fanning) as they bop through an Oregon town running some errands, including one at a nude day spa, a suburban home to buy a boat, and to an organic vegetable farm. As things start getting pieced together, a shocking plot develops: Josh and Dena are eco-terrorists and are planning to blow up a dam that, in their minds, represents America’s energy dependence.
They are helped in their endeavor by Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), a fellow True Believer, who seems to have hyped up his own intelligence by simply saying it out loud over and over again. The three eco-terrorists have their target, their delivery device and their window of opportunity, but not the bomb, which requires a visit to a nearby fertilizer plant. Dena, her innocent face and blond locks hardly threatening, is elected to go make the purchase even though the sale of 500 pounds of ammonia nitrate — the primary compound used in the Oklahoma City bomb — would likely send up some red flags. It’s this scene, as well as several others, that reveal a secondary motive for Night Moves: it’s a suspense thriller. An effective one, too.
Reichardt’s pacing does wonders to the thrills. Even scenes of Josh towing the boat, it’s hull overloaded with explosives, through a recreation area left me jittery and ready for pretty much anything. Later, after the bomb’s timer has been started, as the trio are paddling away from the dam, a car blows a tire on a dam overlook, forcing the driver to get out and change the tire with the bomb-boat in clear view over his shoulder. The rules of suspense require this scene, which allows the three leads to tremble in their boat while the tire-changer struggles with his lugnuts. And remember what Hitchcock said about suspense: bombs exploding are less suspenseful than bombs not exploding.
Later in the film, as Josh, Dena and Harmon separate, the film becomes a meditation on trust, guilt and the adage “honor among thieves.” Night Moves is seen entirely from the perspective of the Eisenberg’s Josh character, who seems to have no personality whatsoever. He does have ideas, though he’s a victim to their results. Josh lives on a family farm run by some hippy types who have more balanced principles. “I’m not interested in statements. I’m interested in results,” the main farmer says after the terrorist act. Someone asks: You don’t call the destruction of a dam results? “No, I call that theater.” Later, this same farmer learns of Josh’s involvement in the dam explosion and the single human death it caused. He kicks him off the farm, which provides one of the subtle visual wonders of Night Moves: Josh driving a gas-guzzling truck past a bank of electrical boxes. Another razor-sharp image can be seen from inside an RV, its passengers watching the Price is Right while supposedly “camping.”
The movie isn’t really interested in the environment, sustainable water usage, marine biodiversity, organic farming, or other ideas from the granola belt. It’s an examination on the choices people make and the repercussions from those choices. The performances are slow and tedious, but that’s no slam on Eisenberg and Fanning, both of whom do what all actors in Reichardt movies do — they underplay everything. A looser, more ambivalent film might unravel under those conditions, but Night Moves is wound as tight as its characters. That allows for an interesting experiment in acting, story and suspense.