Director Kelly Reichardt makes intimate character studies that are less interested in plot than they are in observing individuals in a specific time and place, whether it’s middle-aged men trying to reconnect on a camping trip in Old Joy or a group of settlers heading West during the 19th century in Meek’s Cutoff. Perhaps that’s why Night Moves feels so startling. Though Reichardt’s usual close attention to character and atmosphere is intact, her new movie is surprisingly suspenseful. By her understated, incisive standards, it’s practically an action movie.
The Oregon-set Night Moves introduces us to three people: Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), a soft-spoken, highly intelligent young man; Dena (Dakota Fanning), an impressionable but impassioned friend of his; and Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), a former Marine who’s older than his companions. At first, we’re not sure what has brought them together to buy a small speedboat and a large supply of fertilizer, but soon it becomes clear that they’re not focused on recreation or farming. Led by Josh, these extreme environmentalists are going to blow up a nearby dam in the middle of the night, hoping to send a message to the community about respecting the earth and curbing the spread of rapid industrialization.
Collaborating with her frequent screenwriting partner Jon Raymond, Reichardt gives us a meticulous overview of precisely how Josh and his cohorts will go about their act of terrorism. We watch as each step in their process is carried out with care—after all, they don’t want to arouse suspicion from local authorities—but Night Moves isn’t so much a pseudo-heist movie as it is a study in human behavior. And because the threesome don’t explain much of their plan, we’re left to follow along as they go about their business, picking up on clues to their intriguing interpersonal dynamic.
Utilizing the same brainy, withering demeanor he wielded to such good effect in The Social Network, Eisenberg is superb as Josh, who quietly prides himself on intimidating his associates, talking down to Dena in a dismissive way and flashing a sharper mind than the burned-out Harmon. Josh’s confidence in his role as the group’s leader could become a liability, though, when a brief, mostly offscreen encounter changes the relationship between the three of them in the buildup to their plan.
Night Moves draws much of its suspense from its ability to ground the proceedings in a realistic, everyday world. Much like Meek’s Cutoff or Wendy and Lucy (which starred Michelle Williams as a drifter searching for her beloved lost dog), Night Moves is compelling not because of its story’s startling originality but, rather, because of its bone-dry simplicity, goosed along by Jeff Grace’s softly anxious score. As per norm, Reichardt’s unfussy style elicits unadorned, casual performances, and her three leads easily convey their characters’ committed but somewhat shallow motives for destroying this dam. We’re riveted because these people feel incredibly lifelike, which makes their high-stress mission all the more nerve-racking.
Adding to the terse aesthetic, Reichardt doesn’t tip her hand regarding her feelings about her characters’ plan. Practically a procedural in its dispassionate handling of the material, Night Moves would rather observe than editorialize, although as usual Reichardt is interested in how people are both attracted to and at odds with the untamed mystery of the natural world. But the film’s withheld feelings about Josh’s mission shouldn’t be misconstrued as Reichardt being blasé about its implications. It’s best not to reveal the outcome of the trio’s terrorist plot, but let it be said that Night Moves has far more story to tell after the plan has been executed—and it’s here that Reichardt’s muted tone gains extra power as her conflicted attitude toward their motivations begins to assert itself.
Josh and his team have vowed that their terrorist action won’t hurt anyone, but like a lot of crusaders before them, they come to discover that noble intentions don’t always guarantee better results. And it’s here that Reichardt very slowly tightens the noose on her characters and the audience, showing how slippery a perch the moral high ground can be. There’s more than a little Crime and Punishment pulsing through Night Moves, but Reichardt is only mildly invested in the crime or the punishment. Instead, her increasingly intense and troubling moral thriller is a portrait of thwarted idealism that’s suffused with guilt and regret. The characters may be able to get away with their plot, but they can’t outrun themselves.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Writers: Jon Raymond, Kelly Reichardt
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard
Release Date: Screening at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival