There are a lot of good movies coming out this summer. I’m not just taking about Think Like a Man Too and Transformers: Age of Extinction. The art houses are also putting plenty of quality films. For once. Between the Obvious Childs and the The Rovers, another indie release has managed to slip through my cracks (it’s not how it sounds). Night Moves, the latest film from Kelly Reichardt (Meek’s Cutoff, Wendy and Lucy), has been out since the end of May, but I have been putting it off. The movie is about a trio of environmentalists (Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, and Peter Sarsgaard) who are willing to go to extremes in order to draw attention to their cause. Maybe it’s the film’s built-in message that turned me off, but I should have trusted Reichardt to produce something more layered than a anti-industrial screed.
There are certainly aspects of that in Night Moves, and Reichardt is obviously passionate about her subject matter. Eisenberg’s Josh is the most outspokenly militant of the bunch, at one point railing against the fact that we’re “killing all the salmon just so you can run your fucking iPod every minutes of your life.” That argument wasn’t lost on me, despite the fact that I quickly turned my phone back on as the end credits began to roll. Nor was the slightly hypocritical fact that this movie was screened in a moderately sized theater that uses its fair share of power over the course of the day. Discovering that contrast between Reichardt’s message and Josh’s was one of the more captivating parts of the viewing experience.
Reichardt does lament the effects our advancement has had on our appreciation of nature – juxtaposing serene campgrounds with the people watching The Price Is Right inside their camper – but Night Moves isn’t condoning any of the measures taken by its main characters. Early in the film, a documentarian (Clara Mamet) screens her latest alarmist work for the group to which Josh and Dena (Fanning) both belong. The filmmaker is criticized for failing to offer solutions, and when Dena asks what they can do to enact change, the filmmaker relays only vague comments about the “many little differences we can make.” Josh and Dena both react to this, plainly pitying this woman for thinking small in comparison to what they have planned. But Reichardt isn’t as self-assured as Josh and Dena are – in fact, the picture’s final shot begs the question, “Have the group’s actions had any positive effects at all?”
The movie has a very deliberate pace; Reichardt allows her shots to breathe, letting the point of interest enter or exit frame as necessary. The locations are at times both beautiful and haunting, and the shots of the dam that torments our “heroes” are just as conflicted.
That conflict informs the performances of the film’s stars as well. Sarsgaard gets the least screen time as former Marine and current well-meaning schlemiel Harmon, but Reichardt also gives his character the least depth. This would usually be a bad thing, but Sarsgaard uses the opportunity to present the most honest character in the movie. Fanning’s Dena, on the other hand, is all about presentation. She works very hard to display a confident exterior, and usually does a great job. But Dena’s inner turmoil is often exposed by physical tics or Spider-Man-esque quips intended to cover-up her nerves (I know Spider-Man is a weird comparison to make for a serious film, but good ole’ Peter Parker was the first thing that popped into mind as we start to get to know Dena).
Eisenberg, however, is the true lead here. Almost every scene is shot with Josh’s perspective in mind, which is a bold choice, as he is Night Moves‘s most reserved character. This is an excellently subdued performance from Eisenberg, a man who usually mumbles his heart out onto his sleeve in every role. It would be almost Zuckerberg-ian if Josh’s paranoia, jealousy, rage, etc. weren’t always boiling right under the surface.
Night Moves starts to shake loose its slow pace and eerie tone in the third act, as thriller notes creep in around the edges. This is where Reichardt loses the film a little; it is almost as if someone told her there needed to be an injection of excitement into the movie, even though it has done so well up to that point without any overt action. She was misled, as there are impeccable scenes of high tension sprinkled throughout the first half, built solely on the characters, rather than stakes. Reichardt recovers in time for the conclusion, and even throws in some really well done and unique end credits.
Night Moves is an excellent feature that comes with a bonus message. It’s nothing so drastic as the one Josh and Dena and Harmon espouse, but Reichardt absolutely intends for her audience to think about their own consumption. Fortunately she manages to also craft a compelling story and intriguing characters at the same time. Clara Mamet’s filmmaker could stand to learn something from her creator.