“Huh?!” is the sound of the K.O. bell to director Kelly Reichardt’s through-line that half of audiences will unknowingly ring after seeing the closing shot of “Night Moves.” As her three eco-activist characters fear that no amount of effort on their part may “wake up” the denizens of environment-destroying power-consumers, the “huh?!” symbolizes Reichardt’s failure to fully reach viewers of her meditative thriller through purely visual means.
“Night Moves” opens, too, with a visual sequence that will have detractors of Jesse Eisenberg’s perpetually whiny characters excited about the actor for the first time since 2010’s “The Social Network.” Josh (Eisenberg) and Dena (Dakota Fanning) stare out at the Santiam River (in Oregon) from a large dam. The hydroelectric fortification, to us, may represent the ability to charge our iPhones at will, but, to them, it is the cause of the degradation of the river’s ecosystem for the sake of easy access to the modern technology that will be useless should we continue to destroy the environment that sustains us.
Josh sees the documentaries that advocate small steps towards a more sustainable future, but he has his eyes set on a larger act – one that shifts his epithet from eco-“activist” to “terrorist.” Josh and Dena buy a boat in cash and hook up with Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), an old friend who isn’t interested in environmental extremism so much as carrying out an elaborate, illegal plan for the fun of it. The trio fill their newly acquired boat with hundreds of pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer and set it adrift towards the dam in the middle of the night, unaware that their seemingly victimless bombing will turn their own “at what cost” mantra around on them.
In light of growing pressures to address environmental concerns, we’re beginning to see eco-related drama work its way into narrative cinema. Most of these films – such as the 2013 espionage thriller “The East,” or even the mega-blockbuster “Avatar” – use the heightened stakes of a man-against-the-future-of-the-world battle to offer a bit of vicarious redemption, showing the evils of Earth taken down and the activists finally rising up. “Night Moves” is different in that it meticulously shows us the planning of the bombing, only to slap our hand when we expect to actually see it take place. Like Reichardt’s best, “Meek’s Cutoff,” we have no choice but to find our enjoyment in the internal struggles of the characters, not in the outwardly thrilling situations they find themselves in. So when we hear the bomb go off, but the camera remains on the three now-criminals’ faces, we know that it is their emotional journey from this point that will be the centerpiece of the film, not necessarily the fallout from the external, explosive event.
When a camper who was sleeping on the bank of the river goes missing after the dam explosion, the leading theory being reported on the news is that he drowned in the flooding of water. Josh checks in on Dena obsessively, worried she’ll be the one to fold under the pressure and guilt. He himself is not free from the weight of his conscience, but he deals with it by withdrawing from others – just the wrong thing to do when trying to avoid suspicion. As it turns out, a bit of silence from Eisenberg is just the rejuvenating move his career needs. He sulks here, weighed down by heavy fear and paranoia, saying little but appearing to be in a constantly agitated state.
Sarsgaard is the film’s greatest treat as a backwoods ex-convict that rarely says anything that’s entirely true, but Fanning, who once anchored “War of the Worlds” with Tom Cruise, is the weak link in terms of both performance and character. Her lines are the only that feel “read,” and her character is a closed book – not in the way that Harmon is, with notes of a suspicious past – but rather her backstory simply goes unexplained. It’s tough to find her angle in all this, and with a somewhat robotic performance, it doesn’t go over well when she’s called on to become the most human character post-bombing. By the time she unceremoniously exits the film in a scene that belongs in a completely different movie, some of the intellect and contemplative drama has dissipated. But Reichardt and co-writer Jonathan Raymond tie it all together for a powerful final sequence that uses visual irony and meaningful composition to hammer in a point many may miss.
The top-notch cinematography comes from Christopher Blauvelt (“The Bling Ring,” “Meek’s Cutoff”). He shows a real patience for staging excellent landscape shots at just the right time of day. But beyond the very pretty wide shots, he’s a valuable DP with a knack for connecting ideas and emotions without dialogue. As the boat, loaded with explosive nitrate, is transported to the river, we see it drive by from the point of view of a young boy on a bicycle. Then we cut into the interior of an RV as a family, oblivious to the danger in front of their windshield, watches television. These visual suggestions provide strong, additional impact to the story but are never necessary until the final shots.
This is the “huh” moment – a scene in which Josh seeks work in a retail camping supply store. You simply cannot afford to miss “the point,” but Reichardt allows it to happen for the first time. The film ends. People will walk away not understanding the message. Is that bad or bold filmmaking? “Night Moves” is a whisper in the night, a hypnotically paced meditation on three activists, not activism. It’s a masterpiece film with several of the pieces missing, but as long as Reichardt continues taking risks, I’ll continue watching.Continue Reading Issue #7
May 30, 2014 (limited)
Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard