Kelly Reichardt moves into thriller territory in her latest film about three environmentalists who plot to blow up a dam.
Jesse Eisenberg plays Josh, who lives and works at a sustainable agriculture co-operative, existing as part of a community that is trying to make a difference. Dena (Dakota Fanning) comes from a wealthy family and has decided to use her money to fund something big that will get people thinking and Peter Sarsgaard is Harmon, an ex-marine, who Josh has enlisted to organise the technical aspects of the demonstration. We come to learn of the plan as it is in its final stages, as Josh and Dena act as a couple to inconspicuously buy a boat, aptly named Night Moves (there operation will take place at night), and figure out how to buy large quantities of ammonium nitrate fertiliser without setting off alarm bells and drawing attention to themselves. The first half of the film is a slow building, tense journey as it leads up to the event. Yes the climax happens earlier than expected and also anticlimactically off screen. Then the film really switches pace and becomes more of a gradual observation of the consequences of this action, how will the 3 deal with the fact that a man is now missing and may be dead because of their protest?
The acting from the three main leads is brilliant. Eisenberg plays his usual awkward, nervy self but here he has escalated it to the next level. Josh is a layered and complex character who is immediately likeable as we see him delicately place a fallen bird’s nest back in a tree, we know his heart’s in the right place. Eisenberg says so much with his facial expressions in a subtle and believable way, he is a revelation. Very slowly another side to Josh unravels and things become a lot more complicated. Fanning is also excellent as the bored rich kid who needs something to do but she too takes on a completely different persona when it looks like they may have inadvertently killed someone, the guilt physically affecting her in the form of a rash. It is only Harmon who manages to keep his cool and Sarsgaard is fantastic as the confident explosions expert.
As with other Reichardt films there are scenes that are so beautifully and acutely observed and Night Moves features several, from a tense scene where Dena is sent in to buy the fertiliser to a humorous shot of two people watching television in their RV, rather than enjoying the beautiful surroundings. The slow pace may not be to everyone’s liking but it importantly allows you to consider the subtext, without feeling slow. However, this is not a political film per se, it is just a film with a story that involves political elements and you can take what you want from that aspect of it. Never feeling like a polemic, instead it is far more of a character study and questioning where the line is drawn between good and bad actions. Is it alright to do something bad if overall you are trying to do something good?
Reichardt films are distinctive and different. They feel fresh and original and are also surprising and captivating and Night Moves is no exception. With superb understated performances, beautiful shots, particularly of the trees and lake, and an unpredictable plot with some interesting contemporary themes, what more could you want from a film? The balance of tension, humour and psychological study are just right and the sinister recurring music right until the end credits is spot on.
A distinctive and surprising film with far more depth than most indie offerings. Night Moves never tries to be something it is not, instead it focuses on what it is; a beautifully observant drama with thrilling elements which subtly compels, leaving you wanting a lot more.
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Writer: Jonathan Raymond, Kelly Reichardt
Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Peter Sarsgaard, Dakota Fanning
Runtime: 112 mins