If Meek’s Cutoff (2010) was Kelly Reichardt’s deconstruction of that most American of genres, the Western, whose archetypal form romanticizes the frontier culture which birthed innovators and outlaws alike, then her latest, the eco-thriller Night Moves, is an unexpected continuation of its thesis on the death of that culture, and the now-institutionalized enterprise spirit it engendered.
Meek’s Cutoff revised the genre’s broad ideology to offer an allegorical perspective, proposing the new land as inherently uninhabitable and prone to beget violence: the betrayal of confidence by a new leader and his racial profiling of an innocent native doubled as a harsh reminder of the reality masked by American myth-making and a correlative to modern war crimes. Playing out like a big fuck you to her country’s fable-like revisionism, Reichardt’s film was a pure distillation of its history as a land built on blood and the greed of men.
In the 21st Century Portland of Night Moves (Meek’s Cutoff was set on the Oregon Trail), the innovators have become the outlaws – this is for sure the present-tense of Julian Assange, a morally ambiguous cowboy if ever one lived (and, of course, a suspicious foreigner). Young environmentalists Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) and Dena (Dakota Fanning) are representative of today’s radicals, who seek to destroy rather than build the land. Their plot to blow up a dam – among the defining markers of progression and modernity- couldn’t be more relevant, though Reichardt seems to miss a fact ripe for allegory; dams are a Middle Eastern innovation.
Sadly this oversight is emblematic of the film’s problems, and Reichardt’s toothless, frustratingly non-political approach to potentially incendiary material. The first hour establishes and sustains a tension which fans of Meek’s Cutoff will immediately recognize. Though not as austere as that film, the candle-burn pacing and attentive evocation of environment helps set the stage for dozens of interpersonal frictions and potential sabotages. The introduction of Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) is particularly pronged, his loyalty to Josh tested by the younger Dena whose money (from her father, an inheritance he despises) is funding their project. Soon, however, it is revealed that Harmon’s past may be more coloured than first suggested, and the trio’s plot begins to unravel before it even gets underway.
Reichardt allows plenty of breathing room to each character, whose concerns remain unspoken and fester until the last minute – often the quickest solution is the best, as Dena and Harmon’s brief fling (to the irritation of Josh, whose feelings for her remain ambiguous) smooths over the conflict of her lineage and his lies. Thankfully the plan itself isn’t overwrought or subject to any silliness – the film manages to evoke a palm-sweating atmosphere through gorgeous nighttime photography, a lake of inky and ominous black, and the exact calibration of a countdown set-piece which remains grounded in the film’s temporal reality.
A news report the following morning reveals a twist in the plot that no character had accounted for, and the film’s last hour is a study of its effects on their psyche, and how they re-enter into ordinary life. If this sounds interesting, it’s fair to say that Reichardt has indeed established the scenario for a probing drama about consequence and guilt, and how many lives may be sacrificed in the name of a greater good – if indeed that good can be accomplished by the act of sacrifice. These are all questions which her screenplay readies itself to tackle, but somehow never does, devolving into a series of ham-fisted thriller contrivances, albeit understated ones, and long takes of Eisenberg sulking (I almost laughed out loud at the shot of him looking deeply pensive at a barn party).
The film doesn’t so much lose its way as get stuck in reverse, undoing the hard work of its first hour by forgetting that certain events ever happened (Dena and Harmon’s tryst) and revising certain character behaviour, which increasingly feels like it’s turning on the dime of a plot rather than stemming from any human impetus. As the film’s story beats become more conventional, so too do the leaps of faith required to follow them become more demanding – a climactic scene in a spa is frankly nonsense in relation to its first act, and the ambiguous final shot (depressing for the heart-stopping beauty of Meek’s Cutoff‘s climax) would have had me walk out if it weren’t a relieving signal of the film’s end.
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Writers: Jonathan Raymond, Kelly Reichardt (screenplay)
Stars: Dakota Fanning, Jesse Eisenberg, Peter Sarsgaard
Runtime: 112 min