Directed by: Kelly Reichardt
Written by: Jonathan Raymond and Kelly Reichardt
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard
Night Moves (2013) is not to be mistaken for a remake of the 1975 Gene Hackman thriller, though both do star Lex Luthors in-waiting. It’s Kelly Reichardt’s follow-up to her 2010 anti-western Meek’s Cutoff, and it’s being lauded as her most accessible film to date.
Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) and Dena (Dakota Fanning) are friends who live and work on the margins of modern society in the Pacific northwest; he on an organic farm, she at a wellness center and spa. Dena’s a trust fund brat who’s slumming it with the tree-hugger set and using her wealth to bankroll direct action against industrial interests they perceive as enemies of the environment. For their next target, they enlist Josh’s friend Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), a wilderness recluse, former marine, to help devise and execute a strike that will cross the line from activism into eco-terrorism: the bombing of a local dam.
The trailer for Night Moves put forth the promise of a relatively straight-line thriller, with its mood of creeping dread and escalating threat throughout. The first hour of the actual film delivers as much, focusing as it does on the preparation and placement of the bomb. As the night-time mission to destroy to dam gets underway, Reichardt ratchets up the tension and we find ourselves torn between our law-abiding better angels who ought to abhor any form of violence and our inner Dennis Hoppers who believe that all bombs should ‘become’. We’ve watched this seemingly sincere, generally amiable trio for the first hour, and we’re understandably rooting for them to at least come out of the ordeal in one piece. The on-location setting of the dam is beautifully lit and forebodingly framed, and Reichardt works the scene for every ounce of drama going.
It’s the aftermath of the dam attempt that pulls the movie down. The entire second hour is concerned almost exclusively with Josh’s rising paranoia about either capture by the authorities or betrayal by his co-conspirators. Harmon is absent throughout save for a couple of short phone exchanges with Josh. Dena shows up briefly. With little else to play off, the second act is mostly extended shots of Jesse Eisenberg spooking at every approaching car, every suspicious eye-contact, and skulking around the organic farm.
It’s Reichardt doing what she does and loves best: long quiet scenes where mood and setting take precedence over character and plot. As such, Night Moves becomes a movie of two truly distinct halves, split precisely down the middle. I think existing Reichardt fans will generally approve. If, like me, you’re new to the director, you may think it overall an opportunity to commit entirely to one type of film or the other wasted. Even as is, there’s scope for tightening the pace in both acts of the almost 2-hour runtime and a much stronger 85-minute film might have emerged.
Things come to a violent head in an odd scene that’s tonally jarring with the measured mood beforehand; it’s something more suited to the climax of an ’80s TV cop show and even Reichardt fans might question its appropriateness.
Critics are praising Eisenberg’s against-type man-of-few-words portrayal but I found the more interesting aspect to be how Josh’s fellow eco-activists react to his actions. We get a glimpse of the diverse opinion within this often-caricatured community and I found the scenes where he’s forced to acknowledge the consequences within his own world a welcome contrast to the draggy paranoia-scenes when he’s by himself.
Equally, Dakota Fanning is being hailed as some kind of revelation, as though she’s back from… wherever folk thought she went, I guess. Check her IMDB page and you’ll find at least 15 features since War of the Worlds, including three appearances in something called The Twilight Saga, whatever that may be. Unsurprisingly, all the performances in Night Moves are good, to be sure, but we need to accept that indie movies must always been seen as existing on a higher plane of achievement than their coarse mainstream counterparts because plucky brave pennywise indie.
To that end, I really hope Eisenberg gets to blow up some serious shit in Batman v Superman next year. He’ll obviously be an Indie Rolex among that blockbuster’s cheap gold watches. Who needs a house out in Hackensack anyway?
Night Moves is on theatrical release in UK/Ireland from Aug. 29th and on home video in US/Canada on Sept. 2nd. — Mike Reilly