Directed by: Kelly Reichardt.
Written by: Kelly Reichardt & Jonathan Raymond.
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg (Josh Stamos), Dakota Fanning (Dena Brauer), Peter Sarsgaard (Harmon), Alia Shawkat (Surprise), James Le Gros (Clerk), Katherine Waterston (Anne), Clara Mamet (Jackie), Logan Miller (Dylan), Kai Lennox (Sean).
The film’s director Kelly Reichardt have made up until now are the type of slow, subtle movies that those who don’t pay attention often complain that “nothing happens” in them. Films like Old Joy, Wendy & Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff are certainly slower than most films, but so much is happening beneath their surface that the charge that nothing happens in them is absurd. No one is going to accuse Reichardt’s latest film – Night Moves – as being one of those “Nothing happens” films. The film takes the form of a thriller – and even includes one (off-screen) explosion, and murder. Yet, while the film is certainly a more mainstream effort from Reichardt, it is also undeniably one of her films – it is still about people outside mainstream society, and it still requires the audience to pay attention, because much more happens in the movie than it appears like on the surface.
The movie is centered on three eco-terrorists (or activists if you’d rather) who plot to blow up one or Oregon’s many, many dams. The exact problem they have with that particular dam is never really stated – just caustic remarks about killing the salmon so everyone can have an iPod. In fact, they never really speak about their ideology at all – there is one scene, at an underground screening of a documentary about the evils of corporation pillaging the environment, where the filmmaker says that she isn’t focused on one large thing – but rather countless small things, everyone can do to help. That’s probably about as close as you’re going to get to specific reasons in this film – the three principles are doing their “one small thing” to help.
The film opens with Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) and Dena (Dakota Fanning) at that screening, and eventually hitting the road – where they buy a used boat for cash – Dena, it seems, is one of those trust fund kids with a conscience. The exact nature of their relationship is left unstated – largely because Josh doesn’t seem to like to talk at all. They head up into the Oregon woods, where they meet up with ex-Marine Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) and set their plan in motion. The boat with be packed with fertilizer, and when it explodes, in the middle of the night, it will destroy the dam. It’s the offseason, so no one will be around – no one will get hurt.
The movie is neatly divided into its two halves – leading up to the explosion, and its aftermath. There are several scenes where the suspense becomes almost unbearable – all the more impressive because of how Reichardt achieves this through little dialogue and without the aid of phony theatrics. A scene where Dena has to buy a lot of fertilizers for example – and has to talk the skeptical clerk (James Le Gros – a character actor who seems to specialize in these wonderful, tiny roles) into why she needs it. The scene at the dam itself, when an unexpected car stops too close for comfort as the ticking clock winds down in also expertly crafted by Reichardt. This may be her first thriller, but she has the chops to handle the genre elements amazingly well.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the movie is just how good Eisenberg is in the lead role. We all know Eisenberg is a talented actor – but he has been typecast into movies that rely on his motor mouth skills – he is a natural for the dialogue of an Aaron Sorkin, which is why his performance in The Social Network is one of the best of the decade so far. But in Night Moves, he doesn’t speak much – and when he does, it is slower and more deliberate – he weighs the words he says, and never says more than he has to. It is altogether more impressive than that he makes Josh into a fully rounded character – and his regrets and grief that slowly take over in the second half are down with subtly as the weight of his actions slowly threatens to crush him. Fanning is also very good – in that scene in the fertilizer store in particular – but she is pretty much shunted to the background in the film’s second half. Her off screen actions drive the plot in that half, but they remain off screen until close the end. Sarsgaard is even more back grounded – showing up well into the first act, and other than an occasional voice on the phone, all but absent in the second half. The film is Eisenberg’s from start to finish – and he delivers an excellent performance.
The film itself is not quite as good as Reichardt’s previous work. I admit, I prefer the previous movies, which lacked narrative, but were more interested in human behavior. Reichardt isn’t quite as adept at handling narrative as she is her characters. Still though, Night Moves remains an uncommonly intelligent thriller – one that sticks close to its characters, and doesn’t fill the movie with phony suspense. Yes, it’s a thriller – a damn good one – but it is also a Kelly Reichardt film in all that implies.
Note: I saw this film at TIFF in 2013 - as far as I know, nothing has changed in the version I saw, and the one opening in limited release today.