In Night Moves, the story of three ecoterrorists who blow up a dam and don’t know what’s coming after, Kelly Reichardt brilliantly extends her reputation for making limited material resonant. Providing little information about the details of the deed and minimal dialogue, she nonetheless manages to craft one of the most tense and disturbing new films I’ve seen in quite a while. To call it a “thriller” would be wrong, though, because that would imply something more conventional. The essence of Reichardt’s use of limited means is that she makes us unbearably nervous and on edge with action that, from moment to moment, seems so flat, and with characters about whom we are told so little. It’s a tour-de-force crime procedural with a classic falling out once the crime is done, a thriller without the thrills that morphs into horror and fades away in disturbing, open-ended mystery. Reichardt makes the elaborate, commercial ecoterrorist thriller The East look foolish. The East, with its intricate, complicated action, its myriad motives, and its confused ideologies, does nothing but spew forth drama and raise questions it can’t answer. Night Moves has no questions or answers. It just leaves us to absorb the enormity of carrying out a crime in the name of a cause, thinking a wrong will make a right.
This time after an existential foray into the world of 19th-century western settlers in Meek’s Cutoff, Reichardt returns to the Pacific Northwest of the present day, somewhere near Ashland, Oregon. But there’s a similarity. If the people in Meeks Cutoff were led dangerously astray by someone they oughtn’t to have trusted, there are serious trust issues here. There isn’t much of it between Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), Dena (Dakota Fanning), and the older Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), either. They are each led astray too, by themselves, individually, having not much connection with each other, and intending to split up and cut off contact when the action is done. The usually jittery and hyper-intellectual Eisenberg (the New York Jewish youth in The Squid and the Whale, Mark Zuckerburg in The Social Network), as Josh is stern, dark, still and mysterious. His silences are a little frightening. While Josh really seems to trust Harmon, Harmon questions Josh’s bringing a young woman, Dena, into something he tells Josh is bigger than anything he’s done before. Dena is shocked when a chance encounter reveals Harmon has done jail time and so has a “prior.” They look at new fake IDs Harmon has made and pass them around. Do they know who they are? In the circumstances, the criticism of the film that its characters are left too vague misses the point. Of course they are vague.
All the events are engraved in ordinariness, but there is tension in every scene, start to finish; it’s just that the nature of the tension changes. There is the purchase of a boat (its name is Night Moves; but the operation also is done very late at night). A major early sequence concerns buying an additional 500 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertiliser and is just a matter of talking to employees at a farm equipment dealer. After the action is over, Josh reminds Dena that they must rest and go back to their jobs as if everything is the same.
There’s a critique of the dam explosion by one of Josh’s farming group, who says it’s just “theatre,” not a “statement,” which would require destroying not just one dam but the whole “network,” which consists of some 25 dams. But what’s done is done, and what’s done is a huge gesture that remains unseen and whose consequences are unfolding. We stick with Josh, and he works in a hippieish, very Pacific Northwest communal farm situation. Then of course, little by little, things fall apart. As the situation grows more and more claustrophobic and dangerous, as in a Patricia Highsmith novel, we’re led closer and closer to Josh, and we are reminded how awful and strange ordinary reality can be when what’s going on inside us is disturbed. When we get to the inconclusive, mysterious ending we don’t know what Josh is doing because he doesn’t know, and we are for those moments at one with him.
But not everyone buys into Night Moves, and those who don’t consider the ending a baffling wrong turn. Reactions to the whole film were mixed at Toronto and Venice when it debuted. Some don’t tune in, and see no there there. But those who get on the wave length are in for a powerful experience. Reichardt has an admirable gift for finding the essentials in a situation and sticking with them.
Night Moves, 112 mins., debuted at Toronto, Deauville (Grand Prize there) and Venice September 2013, showing thereafter at many major festivals including London, Tribeca and San Francisco. Released theatrically in France 23 April 2014 (the French critics liked it: Allociné press rating 3.7). Limited US release 30 May 2014., UK, 29 August 2014. Screened for this review at Angelika Film Center, NYC, 10 June 2014. UK, release begins 29 August 2014.
DIRECTOR: KELLY REICHARDT
WRITER: JONATHAN RAYMOND, KELLY REICHARDT
STARS: JESSE EISENBERG, PETER SARSGAARD, DAKOTA FANNING
RUNTIME: 112 MIN