Thursday, March 19, 2020

The Films of Kelly Reichardt: Night Moves (2013)

Night Moves (2013) 
Directed by: Kelly Reichardt.
Written by: Jonathan Raymond & Kelly Reichardt.
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg (Josh), Dakota Fanning (Dena), Peter Sarsgaard (Harmon), Alia Shawkat (Surprise), Logan Miller (Dylan), Kai Lennox (Sean), Katherine Waterston (Anne), James Le Gros (Feed Factory Clerk), Traber Charles Burns (Felix), Autumn Nidalmia (Mable), Barry Del Sherman (Corser), Joel Polinsky (Goose).
I remember watching Night Movies at TIFF in 2013, and thinking that it was a surprisingly conventional thriller for a director like Kelly Reichardt – whose previous film, Meek’s Cutoff, was anything but a conventional Western. It was a little slower than most thrillers – but the basically structure and payoff, where very classically thriller. Watching it again for the first time since then, what struck me about Night Moves is that even if the plot is classic thriller, that Reichardt takes her time in slowly building everything, in slowly establishing everything. The film is basically cut in half by an act of violence in the middle – and the first half is better than the second – but even if the characters in the film are basically pawns to the narrative, the film never feels like that.
The first strange decision by Reichardt is casting Jesse Eisenberg in the lead role of Josh. Josh is not a typically Eisenberg character – he doesn’t talk a mile a minute – often, he barely talks at all. He works on an organic farm in the Pacific Northwest, and believes that people need a wake-up call. Even before the film begins (continuing a Reichardt tradition of sorts, of starting movies after their plot has already begun) – he has started planning a bombing of a damn – alongside his friend Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard, who was once a Marine) and another friend from the farm – Dena (Dakota Fanning) – perhaps a rich girl slumming it for a while, but certainly committed. The explosion will be more symbolic than anything – but for them, it will serve as a wakeup call – and a call to arms. Enough with making documentaries about the problem of Climate Change. You have to do something.
The first half of the movie is everything leading up to that explosion. It is a slow motion procedural of everything the trio does to prepare – buying a boat, in cash, while Josh and Dena act as a couple. Sending Dena into the farm supply store to try and buy a lot of fertilizer – the change that you can make into explosives – and getting a lot of lowkey tension in the suspicions of the manager (a wonderful James Le Gros – who come to think of it, is always wonderful in these roles). And then, the setting of the explosion itself – and the getaway. The film builds an unreal amount of tension, considering that it doesn’t have anything resembling shootouts or car chases, etc. It just slowly, and methodically, builds that tension.
The second half of the film is the fallout of the explosion. It both goes according to plan, and has some unintended consequences that they all have to live with. Harmon can do so without much effort – Josh has some interior struggle, but certainly doesn’t want to get caught. Dena though – perhaps realizing she isn’t really cut out for this, and maybe becomes a loose cannon.
Again, the tension in the second half is built slowly – through conversations, in which people subtly intuit what has happened, but don’t really want to get involved. It leads to where it must. While it is true that more than any of Reichardt’s other film, Night Moves is a more traditional, narrative driven film – with characters at the service of the plot more than being the central driving force of the film, the film also never loses focus on them. It requires the performances – particularly that of Eisenberg – to do a lot of heavy lifting, with not a lot of dialogue to explain everything. While I won’t say it’s the best performance Eisenberg has ever given – I do think it’s second to his brilliant performance in The Social Network, and the exact opposite of that performance in many ways.
I do prefer Reichardt when she basically jettisons narrative. I don’t think Night Moves is quite the film that Old Joy, Wendy & Lucy or Meek’s Cutoff were – I also think I underrated Night Moves when it came out as well. It is in many ways a traditional thriller – but it’s one that has been slowed down to Reichardt speed, and somehow, that makes it even more intense.  

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