Night Moves (2013)
Editor’s Note: Night Moves opens in limited release this Friday, May 30th.
Mankind plays by a different set of rules at night. For most of us, the daylight hours are defined by work, routine, and the pursuit of a paycheck. The nighttime offers something far more alluring: the chance to pursue our own, more radical ideas. In Night Moves, characters toil on an organic farm and collect towels at a health spa during business hours. They work within a standard economic system: show up, do the work, don’t make waves, get paid. Kelly Reichardt’s new film, a slow-burn thriller, relishes in the danger of a life led outside those margin. The chronicle of a small eco-terrorist attack and its blowback, Night Moves is among Reichardt’s finest showcases yet as a political filmmaker and storyteller.
Her latest dispatch from the Pacific Northwest, following the unmistakably Oregon run of Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, and Meek’s Cutoff, the film once again explores the people of a very specific time and place. Here, those people include Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), a taciturn activist who lives and works on an organic farm. Josh spends his days growing sustainable crops with like-minded coworkers. He decries energy consumption and has no access to the Internet, save for a nearby town’s public library. Josh enlists Dena (Dakota Fanning) to bankroll and help execute a plan to blow up a hydroelectric dam. Early in the film, we see Dena attend a climate change documentary and mock the director to her face. Josh and Dena don’t come off as abrasive or petulant. They do, however, appear disillusioned with traditional means of inspiring change. Farmers’ markets and documentary films don’t get people thinking, they reason. A spectacular explosion might.
The chronicle of a small eco-terrorist attack and its blowback, Night Moves is among Reichardt’s finest showcases yet as a political filmmaker and storyteller.
Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), a former Marine with the tactical experience to stage the attack, completes their outfit. Grounded in revolutionary rhetoric, the three purchase huge amounts of ammonium nitrate fertilizer and drift by boat (the eponymous Night Moves) toward the hydroelectric dam. The film unfolds as a series of tense set pieces before, during, and after their nighttime attack.
Night Moves walks a tricky ideological line. On the one hand, Reichardt has a real affinity for the Pacific Northwest and its natural beauty. She luxuriates in the landscape, dwarfing her characters whenever she can in long shots that stress their surroundings. A New Yorker, Reichardt lingers on the region’s rivers and forests, like an out-of-towner transfixed by foreign marvels. Her film doesn’t mock the activists, either. It’s clear she and writer Jonathan Raymond haven’t created these characters for the sole purpose of condemning them. Few could be so dense, however, as to read Night Moves as a glorification of radical violence. The film, for most of its runtime, remains complex. Reichardt and Raymond share the trio’s love of the region and their frustrations, even if they stop way short of applauding their actions. I remain vague to avoid spoilers.
To its vast credit, Night Moves doesn’t give you much time or reason to ponder its takeaway message while you watch it. Reichardt has crafted a potent, under-your-skin thriller, complete with many of the narrative beats of a genre movie. Ever since A.O. Scott hailed Wendy and Lucy as a hallmark of “neo-neo realism,” many have come to view Reichardt as a so-called naturalistic filmmaker, devoid of overt style. Her films, in fact, are among the most rigorous and visually precise of American independent cinema. You won’t find a perfunctory image in a Kelly Reichardt movie. Her meticulous eye – and ear, namely for off-screen sound – mounts scenes of remarkable tension in Night Moves. The suspense is underplayed, like every ingredient in a Reichardt film, and stems from the director’s mastery of film form. In her hands, a trip to the hardware store to buy fertilizer becomes an understated master class in tension.
The suspense is underplayed, like every ingredient in a Reichardt film, and stems from the director’s mastery of film form. In her hands, a trip to the hardware store to buy fertilizer becomes an understated master class in tension.
If anything, Night Moves over-compensates for the director’s reputation for making difficult films (this is her first film since Dan Kois infamously likened the act of watching Meek’s Cutoff to “eating your cultural vegetables”). The film rests a little too hard on the conventions of a thriller. Its third act resembles many films you’ve seen before, at least in narrative, and culminates in a scene I found both wildly implausible and cheap. The rest of the film deserves better. Thankfully, Reichardt course-corrects with a final scene that snaps Night Moves’ thematic and aesthetic motifs into place. The scene in question takes place at a sporting goods store, and it reveals just how difficult it is to opt out of society and go rogue in the 21st century. A group of motionless mannequins serve as a metaphor for both the lack of agency her radicals have and the lack of agency we all have as abiding members of an economic system. Like those mannequins, we’re all just stuck.
Night Moves is a movie about three people who’ve decided that the legal means to enact change no longer work. Through visual association, the film suggests they have two choices: they can use fertilizer to build a sustainable food source, or they can use fertilizer to build a bomb. The former represents unglamorous, incremental change; the latter, a rattling message to the masses. Reichardt mines the Pacific Northwest – its people, landscapes, and values – to craft an important, unnerving thriller with no easy answers.
A story of slow-burn suspense and political activism, Night Moves marks the most accessible film yet from director Kelly Reichardt. The director crafts understated scenes of escalating tension and a story that explores the motivations for (and consequences of) radicalism in the 21st century. The film delivers on both counts as a genre-driven thriller and a knotty piece of political filmmaking.