Night Moves is another stealth drama from director Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, the masterful Meek’s Cutoff). In telling the story of three environmental activists who plot to blow up a hydroelectric dam in Oregon, she brings complicated human dilemmas into the climate-change crossfire. Cleverly and claustrophobically, Night Moves internalizes an external crisis.
The movie centers on a trio of earnest eco-crusaders: Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), a scowling hired hand at a local farm; Dena (Dakota Fanning), a sarcastic assistant at a health spa; and Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), an off-the-grid loose cannon who has the explosives experience their scheme requires.
As depicted by Reichardt, the community to which these three belong is at once deeply disturbed by the state of the environment and utterly perplexed over how to tackle the problem. Early on, Josh and Dena attend a screening of an activist eco-documentary (projected on a bed sheet, of course) which ends with the call: “Let the revolution begin!” Afterwards, however, the crowd seems at a loss during the Q&A session. Reichardt tellingly makes an abrupt cut during one audience member’s question, putting an exclamation point on their collective impotence.
For Josh, Dena and Harmon, then, the choice seems to be between frustrating paralysis and some sort of angry seizure. The plot to blow up the dam counts as the latter. As they go through their preparations, Reichardt deftly teases out the tensions among them. Eisenberg’s Josh – his curly mop of hair piled on his head like Pacific Northwest moss – is impatient and condescending, particularly to Fanning’s Dena. She, in turn, deflects him with a coquettish brand of pixie doom. Smiling and teasing while spouting terrifying environmental facts, she matter-of-factly concludes, “It’ll all go fast in the end.” As for Sarsgaard, he’s here to do what he does best: make everyone uncomfortable with his satyr grin.
The choice seems to be between frustrating paralysis and some sort of angry seizure.
One reason Meek’s Cutoff was a quantum leap for Reichardt was because of her ingenious use of the camera, which continues here. Night Moves opens with a series of elegant, widescreen establishing shots of the dam itself, including one in which Josh and Dena stroll down a long concrete walkway that bifurcates the screen, kept safe from the water on either side by the very object they mean to destroy. Other visual ironies pop up here and there, from the interior shot of a family watching television in their RV, ignoring the natural wonders just steps away, to an insert shot of the bags of volatile fertilizer stuffed into the trio’s boat. As they haul the boat toward the lake, the shadows of leaves from the passing trees cast peaceful, idyllic silhouettes on the potential explosives.
After the sabotage itself, Night Moves takes an aesthetic turn that’s in line with the 1975 Gene Hackman-Arthur Penn neo-noir with which it shares a title. Guilt and paranoia seep into the picture, to the point that the leafy Oregon byways begin to resemble the shadowy streets of 1950s L.A. Josh keeps an eye on Dena by lurking outside her apartment window; he and Harmon share cryptic conversations over the phone. It gets to a point where Dena notes, in another trace of irony, “There’s nothing natural about this.” Trying to correct something amiss in nature has created rot in their souls.
Night Moves follows this thread all the way to a grim, dismal end, one that ends with a character standing amidst faceless mannequins sporting camping gear. It’s an equivocal image for a largely apolitical movie, yet still a potent moment. In a film full of ironies, here’s a final one: a picture of someone whose passion for nature has led them to a commodified parody of it.