Clean, crackling, tensile, and mesmerically assured, Night Moves is a richly engrossing drama that’s aiming for the head, not the gut; a study of murky actions, fuzzy ideals, and wrong decisions for righteous reasons, offering more than what we expect and taking its time to deliver. It’s a cunning, if thin, piece of storytelling.
Josh, a self-made militant, Dena, a high-society dropout, and Harmon, a former Marine, are three Portland-based environmental activists who look to execute the protest of their lives: the explosion of a hydroelectric dam, a symbol of the resource-devouring industrial culture they despise. When things go irreparably off course, the consequences of their actions cause them to question their deepest convictions.
As Josh, Jesse Eisenberg (Adventureland, The Social Network) is frighteningly brooding and continues to demonstrate his ability to project two sides of a person. Parallel to The Double, Night Moves reveals the dark core contained within an actor’s nice-guy neuroticism. You will take similar pleasure in the performances of Dakota Fanning (Coraline, The Runaways), who has matured into a decent star, and Peter Sarsgaard (An Education, Blue Jasmine), consistently excellent, even if the film sorely misses the presence of indie muse Michelle Williams.
With Night Moves, writer-director-editor Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy) and writing partner Jon Raymond expand their singularly spartan field guide to off-the-grid Oregonians. The influence of early Alfred Hitchcock is all over this movie, as is Reichardt’s ability to coolly present thorny sociopolitical and moral issues, translated in unusual fashion. Her camera moves slowly, and she accumulates tension by showing detail after detail, conveying the bohemian radicalism of the West Coast area that nurtures the trio’s dangerous scheme.
Her patience and dedication to showing us exclusively the things that we must see makes the scenes of preparation – fertilizer buying, boat parking – hypnotic and suspenseful. No stranger to crafting excessive anticipation, Reichardt has funneled that skill into thriller clothing, and she blends her lucid observational approach with a topical-thriller format to engrossing effect. The movie’s centerpiece and peak is the operation itself, which Reichardt depicts with the pulse-pounding, teeth-grinding patience of a classic heist like that in Rififi.
Reichardt, who, despite the film’s absences, has achieved an impressive control over the medium, uses her intuitive sense of rock-solid composition and pacing to slow burn the audience into a state of anxiety instead of manipulatively pushing them there. With gracefully fluid camerawork by cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt lingering over the gorgeous autumn countryside, Night Moves is directed by Reichardt with the concision and elegance of a chess master.
Showcasing complex and plausible performances and the shin-stinging kick of a Chaucerian moral fable, Night Moves is a film of deliberate, gnawing intensity and focus, built around a narrative that doesn’t give much away easily. Don’t expect De Palma crowd-pleasing pyrotechnics – Reichardt is too low-key and modest for that – but one long shot near the end suggests that people who are convinced they are doing the right thing are capable of great evil.
It also spurs contemplation as a thoughtful, clear-eyed and provocative film raising tough questions and refusing to offer simple answers. If it’s food for thought you’re looking for, you won’t go hungry with Night Moves. In how it pulls together our homegrown fears and utopian ideals, it’s the zeitgeist movie of the moment, an engrossing reflection on violence and its fallout.
As a procedural, Night Moves is undeniably effective: The buildup is slow, painstakingly intense, the fallout inevitably shocking. But the soul is somehow missing. While the terrific first hour is evocative and crescendoes toward an extended sequence of potent white-knuckle suspense, the second loses traction and doesn’t muster the depths of paranoia and doom you’re led to expect. It’s too generic to be original and too original to be generic. There’s a certain muddled ambivalence to the movie; Reichardt never quite cracks Josh, who’s more impenetrably aloof than the beleaguered travelers of Meek’s Cutoff, her masterpiece.
Night Moves is a portrait of outsiders that leaves its audience on the outside. Nevertheless, it retains enough indirection to frustrate those looking to be thrilled and to engage those looking to be challenged. By the time the bottom drops out in a characteristically enigmatic ending of confident ambiguity – subtly, pointedly, and auspiciously arriving at a destination as pessimistically valid as it is psychologically loaded – Night Moves distinguishes itself as a quietly gripping gem with a justifiable, if second-tier, place in the Reichardt filmography.