In 2011, I saw Kelly Reichardt’s minimalist Western Meek’s Cutoff and was, to put it mildly, affected. Without violence or any kind of overt dramatics, she created one of the bleakest, most despairing films I’ve ever seen. Night Moves is not on the same level as a film, but in its own right it’s an effective, contemplative thriller, and Reichardt only continues to prove her status as one of the great undersung voices of modern independent cinema.
Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) and Dena (Dakota Fanning) are members of an environmentalist collective; Dena works at a day spa operated (?) by the collective, while Josh lives and works on the collective’s farm near Ashland, Oregon. Josh and Dena have been planning (with whose, if anyone’s, approval it is never made clear) to blow up a dam, with the help of rural activist Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard). We see them methodically prepare for the bombing: buying a boat (with cash); buying large amounts of fertilizer (which Dena accomplishes using a little subterfuge) and preparing it; taking the boat to a public dock and waiting for dark so they can sail to the dam and set the bomb.
The plan seemingly goes off without a hitch; after parting ways, Josh and Dena pass through a police checkpoint with no issue, and return to their normal lives. But the following morning, a revelation comes: a camper in the area has gone missing in the aftermath of the explosion. As time passes and the camper’s chances of survival dwindle, Dena is wracked by guilt, and Josh–while feeling guilty himself–fears that she may go to the police.
Even in the watching of the film, I felt a strong Dostoevsky influence. The first half could be considered analogous to Demons (aka The Possessed) in its depiction of revolutionary activity¹. The second half, where guilt threatens to destroy the protagonists, is clearly Crime and Punishment. It doesn’t hurt that Jesse Eisenberg, with his inward nature and glowering face, would make a perfect Raskolnikov–though it’s Dena who is most acutely tormented by her conscience.
Perhaps also like Dostoevsky, the film takes a rather critical view of this kind of activism². Josh overhears Sean (Kai Lennox), the head of the collective where he lives, discussing the bombing, saying that blowing up one dam is a totally meaningless action (“that river must have 10 dams on it”). Josh’s motivation for doing this–“to make people think”–is vague at best, and while we get no sense of the general public reaction, presumably the death of the camper w0uld be enough to vilify the bombers in the eyes of most.
What keeps the film from really achieving greatness is its failure to delve more deeply into the philosophical implications of its premise, focusing instead on building suspense (which it does very well), but leaving it without a solid core. Like Meek’s Cutoff, the film ends on an ambiguous note, but where that film’s ending left one feeling desolated (it annoyed me for about 10 seconds, then I realized why it worked), here, the ending feels arbitrary; the film could’ve ended 2-3 minutes earlier than it did without making a notable difference.
Night Moves, ultimately, just feels a little too plotted for its own good, particularly in the second half. I won’t spoil what happens, but it comes closer to melodrama than I’d like. The script, by Reichardt and Meek’s writer Jonathan Raymond, is quite compelling when focusing on the nuts and bolts of grassroots terrorism, but loses some steam when it attempts to become an overt thriller. It’s still good, but it’s not remarkable.
Reichardt’s direction, though, remains highly effective. There are some unbearably tense moments here, and the unflinching, documentarian portrayal of the preliminaries is quite fascinating. It’s arguably a case where the direction outstrips the film itself, but there are some excellent moments on display.
Chris Blauvelt’s cinematography is starkly impressive (he’s worked with Reichardt before), Reichardt’s editing is deliberate and merciless in crafting suspense, and Jeff Grace’s eerie music adds to the grim mood.
I don’t know who designed the end credits, but they’re really well done. That might sound like damning with faint praise, but I was genuinely impressed by them; the shifting colors of the background and the bold Helvetica lettering made for an attractive set of credits.
The acting is generally quite strong. Eisenberg carries much of the film, and while his brooding gets a little repetitive at times, as the film progresses and the pressures on Josh mount, he effectively communicates the slow, subtle breaking-down of Josh’s psyche. With a minimum of dramatics, we see just how much he’s falling apart, and how fully he realizes that the drastic action he staked his future on has turned against him. It’s an effective performance, if not quite Eisenberg’s best.
Fanning is hampered a bit by the writing: Dena as written is sort of like all the bourgeois activists in America rolled into one, and she has a tendency to crack wise which, either because of the writing or Fanning’s delivery, gets pretty tiresome pretty quickly. She does better in the later stages of the film, but there’s just not a ton here for her to work with.
Sarsgaard’s screen-time is limited, but he disappears quite completely into the role; it’s a character that could’ve gone hammy, but Sarsgaard plays it straight. No one else in the cast really does enough to merit mention, but the acting is believable across the board.
There’s not a whole lot to say about Night Moves, ultimately. It’s very well-made, it’s engaging, but it doesn’t quite become a great film. It is very good, though, and certainly worth a look. (That sounds like a really limp recommendation. I’m sorry. It really is a pretty good film, it just doesn’t command any superlatives.)
¹To be honest, I’ve never read Demons, but I have read Crime and Punishment (or most of it).
²I’ve yet to see Zat Batmanglij’s The East, but I feel like it takes the opposite tack; showing revolutionary activism in a positive or at least efficacious light. The two films would likely make an interesting double feature.