Environmental Deficiency
By Michael Koresky

Night Moves
Dir. Kelly Reichardt, U.S., Cinedigm

Each of Kelly Reichardt’s films thus far has proven her adeptness at wringing tension out of unexpected situations. Think of the weekend sojourn of two aging buddies in Old Joy, their lives diverging in irreconcilable ways, producing simmering resentments; the new-Depression street-survival narrative of Wendy and Lucy; the grim “westward ho!” caravanning in the period drama Meek’s Cutoff. Night Moves is in many ways different, grafting a social critique onto a suspense narrative, rather than the other way around. The film initially seems to cast a wide net, commenting on contemporary mores, but it ultimately settles for being narrower, a portrait of extreme psychosis.

Like her other films, Night Moves stays on the outside of its opaque characters; protagonist Josh, a pensive, mentally and geographically unmoored environmental activist played by Jesse Eisenberg, is hardly knowable (in fact, he seems to recede from our view the more we spend time with him). But Reichardt brings us close to his tortured thought processes, and via this proximity Night Moves ultimately arrives at something like an intimate space. This time, it’s the external world—the larger political landscape of contemporary America and specifically its marginalized militant left—that feels inchoate.

Reichardt returns to the Pacific Northwest—the site of Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy—to tell this shadowy tale of the fallout from political radicalism gone horribly wrong. As the film opens we see a familiar sight: Jesse Eisenberg, hands in pockets, stretching out a grungy, ill-fitting jacket. This is the normal pose for the actor, who never seems comfortable in his own skin, let alone clothes, and who commonly radiates a neurotic intelligence always on the verge of exploding into fearful bouts of destructive emotional violence. Whatever else can be said for—or against—Night Moves, Reichardt cannily exploits this quality in the actor, whose scowling, fumbling neuroticisms have yet to be harnessed for their potential leading-man charm. Eisenberg’s rat-a-tat patter and fixed gaze make him prime fodder for potentially deranged characters. (Unsurprisingly he’s been cast as Lex Luthor in an upcoming superhero thing—be wary of pigeonholing casting directors, Jesse, this could be your future.)

We might assume Josh to be a thoughtful man of action at first. Early on in the film, we see him gently tending to a fallen bird’s nest and then attending a screening of a pro-environmentalist, anti-corporate documentary (“The clock is ticking”) in a remote cabin somewhere in Oregon. Here, an assortment of mostly twenty and thirty-something political malcontents debate the efficacy of documentary filmmaking, arguing over whether it can effect any real change. Among the disillusioned viewers is Dena (Dakota Fanning), a sullen-eyed young woman from a well-heeled upper-middle-class background. We learn that Dena and Josh—cut off from his family and working at an organic farm—are hatching a clearly misguided plan to blow up a nearby hydroelectric dam; accessible only within the confines a mountain state resort, the dam in question is a target for the angry eco-terrorists because it kills untold scores of salmon in the drive to power the homes of local energy-inefficient yuppies. Soon, the two of them, masquerading as a couple—in one of the film’s subtleties, their real relationship is largely undefined, though Josh seems to harbor an attraction to Dena—lie about their names and jobs, procure fake IDs, purchase a used boat, and, after enlisting the help of alpha-male Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), a disillusioned ex-marine, lie their way into buying a dangerous amount of ammonium nitrate fertilizer (“…for all the goddamn broccoli that needs its nitrogen!” Dena insists). As clearly dubious and dangerous as their illegal mission is, it’s Josh’s bizarre, not a little misogynist behavior that’s most alarming: he is prone to cutting Dena off when she speaks, tells her to “shut up” when she asks Harmon about his checkered past, and at one point he summarily and rather shockingly kicks a dead but pregnant deer off the side of the road—a strangely callous act that could be read as merciful.

As the film creeps along, we come to realize that Josh is less a political idealist than a profoundly troubled kid searching for an outlet for his anger. Meanwhile, Fanning’s Dena registers as little more than a tremulous wayward soul and Sarsgaard’s Harmon a reckless, mentally unstable criminal. The potentially unintended result of all this is that Reichardt’s story, cowritten with frequent collaborator Jonathan Raymond, comes across as little more than a solemn near-parody of the radical left—that the film would play right into the hands of more conservative viewers matters less than that such broad strokes ultimately make for a rather flat character-based narrative. There aren’t many discernible emotional layers to these ultimately buffoonish eco-terrorists; they’re hardly able to pass as normal—at one point, they easily betray their own suspiciousness when, en route to their explosive act, they can barely muster casual conversation with a friendly passerby with nerve damage. And when their central moment finally happens, it’s dramatized in a murky, spatially confusing nighttime set piece. It appears they succeed at their task, however, from the sound of a blast we hear once they’re at safe distance. Later, they are wracked with guilt when they discover there’s been a possible casualty from their explosion: a nearby camper has gone missing.

If more meditative or kind toward its characters, Night Moves might have been a trenchant examination of the failure of any sort of ideology—left or right wing—when pushed to its limits, and the importance of incremental social change. But whatever conversations about environmental activism, radical politics, or even the desperate state of contemporary agriculture are ambiguously raised in the first half of the film end up as prelude to the second’s increasingly standard “crime doesn’t pay” thriller elements, complete with claustrophobically shot, guilt-fueled violence and hushed, noirish cellphone talks. The film’s wide-open yet drab, overcast spaces (including some striking low-angle shots of graveyard-like forests populated with sad, dead trees) give way to increasingly shadowy interiors, where Josh makes some final, fateful decisions. Reichardt proves herself a master of mood and tension here, especially in one terrific shadowy scene set in a kitchen, where only a tiny square of screen is illuminated, as one character lies in wait, watching another from a separate room. It’s elegantly done, like something out of prime Alan J. Pakula. But that’s perhaps a drawback. Ultimately, Reichardt has made an efficient, if low-energy, seventies-style thriller (there’s an enveloping, slightly kitschy synth score by Jeff Grace, and even the title recalls Arthur Penn’s 1975 drama of failure) rather than used that genre to engage in any enlightening moral debate. Ultimately the right and wrong of Night Moves is dully cut and dried.