All of director Kelly Reichardt’s movies revolve around some kind of desire for escape: “River of Grass” centered on a broke couple attempting to flee their state; “Old Joy” found two old pals temporarily abandoning the crush of daily routine; “Wendy and Lucy” featured a young drifter stuck in a small town looking for her dog; “Meek’s Cutoff” reenacted the aimless wanderings of pioneers on the Oregon Trail.
With “Night Moves,” Reichardt applies this ongoing thematic interest to a more traditional narrative structure, without sacrificing her penchant for the slow, pensive approach that makes her work so absorbing regardless of its plot specifics. But the movie is especially notable in relation to its predecessors because Reichardt’s deliberate pace actually works in service of suspense, resulting in her most accessible movie to date.
If not a definitive achievement, “Night Moves” nevertheless offers a uniquely riveting experience that plays like a culmination of the movies preceding it – and an ideal starting point for exploring them. No stranger to extended build-up, Reichardt has funneled that skill into the makings of a thriller. However, like all of her output, it’s never as simple as it looks.
While set in modern times, “Night Moves” could have been made decades ago, in the heyday of eco-terrorist groups like Earth First! and the Earth Liberation group, whose participants provide a model for the movie’s protagonists. At its center is a trio of disturbed radicals: Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), a soft-spoken farmworker, Dena (Dakota Fanning), a high school dropout who comes from a wealthy family, and ex-marine Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard). When the movie begins, the trio have already joined forces in Southern Oregon and concocted a plot to blow up one of the region’s oppressive dams. While the first hour steadily tracks their strategy sessions, the second finds them trapped by the fallout of the act. No other Reichardt film falls into this neat construction, which puts extremist action of any stripe under the microscope and magnifies its immediate ramifications. Only political by implication, “Night Moves” predominantly involves the moment-to-moment uneasiness of its risky business.
At the same time, “Night Moves” frequently takes the form of an anti-thriller. Collaborating with her usual writing partner Jon Raymond and aided by “Meek’s Cutoff” cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, Reichardt fills the scenario with details of the lush, nature-loving valley where its characters reside, contrasting the serenity of the environment with the activists’ unsmiling temperaments. Her story foregrounds their ambiguous emotional state: Outside of some perfunctory dialogue at a group meeting in the opening scene, we hear almost no ideological debates surrounding their motivation.
While at times that makes it difficult to comprehend their behavior, it also allows their expressions to drive the story more than the implicit politics. Rather than foregrounding eco-terrorist rhetoric, Reichardt eloquently humanizes their plight. Like Hany Abu-Assad’s Palestinian suicide bomber portrait “Paradise Now,” Reichardt amplifies the imperfection of the task at hand and the lack of cohesion among the group members that results from working outside the system. In a particularly revealing moment after they rig up the dam and flee, the camera remains on their faces as they hear a distant boom.
It’s an explosive moment in more ways than one. In the wake of the action, the emphasis shifts from the characters’ drive to their increasingly paranoid mindsets. As the situation grows more complicated and their mutual trust begins to fray, “Night Moves” shifts into a taut look at the boundaries of extremism rather than the forces behind it.
Eventually, however, the scenario runs into clichéd territory, suffering in part from Eisenberg’s unconvincing transition into a jittery psychopath. Fanning’s character is even less clearly defined—the evolution of her radicalism never quite gels with her upper class background—leaving only Sarsgaard as the fully credible figure, a uniformly creepy schamer mostly relegated to the sidelines. Yet the archetypical nature of these characters also enables “Night Moves” to examine the practical ramifications of reckless social rebellion in palatable terms.
It’s fascinating to watch the director’s style blossom under the restrictions of a more conventional storyline, even as she actively works against it. Several sequences unfold with a slow-burn quality that enables Reichardt to foreground her subjects’ haunted state, while Jeff Grace’s ominous score and the linear structure create a genuine sense of dread that leads each moment to the next.
Reichardt may sympathize with the cause, but not the perpetrators: “Night Moves” presents a savvy look at the vanity of grassroots extremism, finding its anti-heroes trapped by the institutional forces they despite at every turn. The only hint of rhetoric arrives early on, when a young woman at a group meeting makes a vague assertion that frustrates the main characters. “I’m not focused on big plans,” she says. “I’m focused on a lot of small plans.” By contrast, the main characters in “Night Moves” aspire to succeed at a big plan without considering its ramifications until it’s too late. By placing that situation ahead of the polemics driving it, Reichardt portrays activism in self-defeating terms, trapping her characters in a personal hell of their own creation. Like the expressionistic power of the empty landscape in “Meek’s Cutoff,” its universe simultaneously feels real and frighteningly abstract.
A version of this review was originally published during the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. “Night Moves” opens Friday in New York ahead of a national expansion.