After a tour of the festival circuit beginning with last year's Venice festival, Kelly Reichardt's new thriller Night Moves has reached cinemas with a limited release. Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard as idealistic environmentalists in the Pactific Northwest, Reichardt and co-writer Jonathan Raymond set out to see just how much tension can be squeezed out of the most mundane of people and situations. Eisenberg's Josh is a young man working for a farming co-op in Eugene, Oregon while moonlighting as an activist disillusioned by the anti-environmental practices of the modern world and the lack of teeth of his fellow radicals. Looking to do something that might legitimately make the world take notice, Josh teams up with a young upstart and bank-roller in Dena (Fanning) and an old friend Harmon (Sarsgaard) to purchase a boat, fill it with a fertilizer bomb and detonate it by a hydroelectric dam. It becomes clear rather quickly that the three amateur ecoterrorists are almost certainly in over their heads, but it is too late to turn back.
Night Moves takes its name from the boat Josh and Dena purchase (and not the Bob Seger song), but the name is just as descriptive of the clandestine strike to which the film builds in its second act. It is the slowest of slow builds, as Eisenberg's trademark manic energy and Fanning's naïve loftiness clash on the road to the riskiest moments of their lives. Once Sarsgaard's laid back confidence (mixed with Josh's minor case of hero worship) is added to the mix, the trio feels unstoppable. Their hubris is dangerous, as the build to their caper is littered with tension and mistakes. Josh and Dena spend far too much time chatting with the owner of the boat they purchase. Harmon immediately establishes himself as a wild card, hiding a history of jail time and a tendency to be recognized in cafes where they’re holding secret meetings. Things come to a head in a long, tense confrontation at a hardware retailer over the purchase of large quantities of controlled fertilizer. There are cracks everywhere.
In practice, Night Moves is a sort of anti-caper film in a similar way that another taut, slow burn thriller in Blue Ruin established itself as the anti-revenge film. We are so used to the well-worn trope of either amateurs or professionals pulling off a caper with a near-preternatural capacity for making even the most complicated maneuvers look effortless. That is not what Reichardt is giving us here. These are (as much as they can be, at least) real people, not avatars of perfection.
Reichardt and Raymond also set themselves apart in the way they structure the overall pacing of the film. One might expect, as is often the case in caper films, that the caper itself would be the focal point of the film, with all of the action leading up to its execution in the early to middle part of the third act. Night Moves is deeply focused on the caper, this is true, but the action happens much earlier than it is usually found. With the bombing taking place in the middle of the second act, there is ample time to devote to the fallout of the event just as much as the build to it, throwing the spotlight directly onto the turmoil within our “heroes” as the events begin to unravel into tragic consequences. It is a caper film in which the caper is, from a mechanical standpoint, the least important part of the film. It has to happen to get to what Reichardt and Raymond really care about.
The film’s cinematography, editing and score match its overall slow burn intensity marvellously. This is not a cut-heavy film of the post-MTV generation. The shots and angles take their time to breathe; languid, measured portraits of the environment these characters are so desperate to save are a staple. It’s an effective tension-building tool, lingering on Josh’s muddy boots during a traffic stop on their getaway from the scene as he’s interviewed by the cops. The audience is well aware of the shot’s implications, and the longer the camera lingers, the more likely the tension could stumble off its razor’s edge into oblivion. Such a Sword of Damocles hanging over the proceedings plays right into Eisenberg’s nervous energy; the third act is a feast of furtive glances, hand wringing and tics, and he only cracks a smile once in 112 minutes.He does not have the best poker face in the world, but it serves his character and the story well. He may be the focus and get the bulk of the screen time and emotional heft, but that does not discount the good work of Fanning and Sarsgaard. It is a small ensemble, but a strong one.
Night Moves is the sort of film that may not amount to all that much more than a competent example of a slow burning thriller about morally gray actions and their mounting consequences. This is an accurate statement, but arguably undersells the care with which its filmmakers and cast approach it. It is a testament to how engaging it is despite its lugubrious setting and pacing, considering how broadly sketched these three characters are. They (other than Dena) are not particularly sympathetic souls, and that trend does not exactly move positively as the film moves forward. It is a wonderful expression of genre filmmaking at its core, and its digressions away from established norms keeps it fresh.