Based on the subject matter alone, Kelly Reichardt’s film Night Moves will likely gain her the largest audience she’s had to date. A tightly wound drama about eco-terrorists plotting to blow up a dam on an Oregon river, Night Moves is, for its first hour, a slow-burning, teeth-clenching drama that recounts the build-up to the crime with meticulous attention. The movie is quiet, somber, and patient, acutely tuned to the slightest sound or the most incidental of details, which rattle the placid mood with unnerving regularity.
You’re not even aware you’re watching a thriller until the few seconds before the explosion, when the three terrorists must deal with a sudden disruption of their plans, and you then feel the sweat on your palms. Reichardt so expertly sustains the tension up to and immediately after the dam blows that the dramatic letdown of the film’s last half comes close to being a major bummer.
Night Moves is the name of the boat purchased by the three eco warriors, played by Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, and Peter Sarsgaard, but neither the boat nor the subject matter bears any resemblance to Arthur Penn’s own Night Moves, his great paranoid noir from 1975. That film did, however, end with a scene on a boat and perhaps Reichardt meant her film to be an homage to Penn’s seething, corrosive thriller, without the bitter cynicism which whirled around his movie like a toxic quicksand.
Set in the woodsy, liberal enclave of Eugene, Oregon, where Fanning’s character works at a New Age spa and Eisenberg’s at an organic farm, Reichardt deftly captures the earnest collectivism of the young population and their temperate sense of anarchy. Within this community, Fanning and Eisenberg would be exiled if they tried to rally their friends with a call for actual violence, so they stay undercover as they purchase the boat, the fertilizer (for the homemade bomb), and enlist Sarsgaard, an ex-Marine, in wiring the explosive.
The three set out at night to do the deed, confident of the righteousness of their act, and assured no one will get hurt in the ensuing destruction. In the tradition of “best laid plans”, you can guess what happens next.
Fanning is excellent as the rich girl who drifts into committing a violent act without considering the consequences. Sarsgaard is believably laidback as the trailer-dwelling veteran. And Eisenberg, despite a tendency to endlessly furrow his brow, is chilling. His motive for blowing up the dam – something about “no more salmon dying just so people can listen to their iPods” – is delivered with a softly arrogant sneer. He doesn’t buy this superficial manifesto anymore than Reichardt does. But when the movie begins to spiral into a dead zone, the actor’s brooding, cold stares classify him less as a would-be revolutionary and more as a malevolent twerp.
Following the dam blast and its devastating fallout, the trio’s allegiances begin to splinter. Guilt and fear replaces their dreams of romantic anarchy, and two of them crack under the pressure, although in radically different ways. Unfortunately, Reichardt botches this key tonal shift, deciding to maintain a downbeat, minimalist rigidity when what the film needs is a wild burst of emotional realism. She boxes herself and Eisenberg into a corner, forcing the movie to become a noxious study of a killer.
Reichardt’s strongest talents are her command of screen space and a feel for the textural weight of an image, especially the damp beauty of the Pacific Northwest. But, as with her previous films – the dismal mumblecore two-hander Old Joy, the opaque Wendy and Lucy and the cryptic, aggravating Meek’s Cut-off – this almost fetishistic reliance on hyper-stylized nature undercuts both aesthetic and narrative rewards. You end up sorting through the visuals for metaphors or symbols where there aren’t any, and the task of puzzling through the inscrutable storylines for meaning is exhausting.
Her best film to date was her first, River of Grass, a Southern-fried neo-noir about two lovers on the run. It was loopy and unpredictable, and a far cry from anything she’s done since. Night Moves, while never alluding to anything impulsive going on behind the camera, at least puts her intense control of atmosphere to fine, suspenseful use. Until, that is, it all crumbles, like the dam at the center of the plot.