How far would you go for a cause? Do the ends always justify the means? That is what director Kelly Reichardt asks in her latest thrilling feature Night Moves, which follows a group of eco-terrorists/activists through their plan to blow up Oregon’s Green Peter Dam.
Jesse Eisenberg is Josh, a yurt-dwelling farmer who works and lives on a CSA commune. Dakota Fanning is Dena, a younger, overly educated activist who dropped out of college the minute she “realized” just how much her intelligence surpassed that of her professors. They team up with Harmon, played by an appropriately filthy Peter Sarsgaard, whose creepy leering should turn away anyone with a working scumbag radar. Harmon labels Dena as a false activist who’s simply acting out at a rich daddy, but he is essential to their mission and the trio solidifies their plan.
Reichardt takes us through every laboring detail of their task, infusing tension and suspense into the minutiae of each step. There’s a surprising amount of anticipation in watching them mix fertilizer or remove the seating of the speedboat that they’ve purchased for the task. Night Moves is the name of said boat, and it creeps along like another scheming character on the opaque river when they set out on their mission. While in Reichardt’s other films her incredibly slow pacing may grate on some viewers’ patience, here her tendency to be deliberately unhurried actually adds to the thrilling ambiance.
There are early signs that these environmentalists aren’t the embodiment of perfect, earthly harmony that they think they are. When Dena and Josh find a dead, pregnant doe on the side of the road and realize the fawn inside is still alive, would not a true lover of nature quickly seek out a vet and see if the fawn can be saved? Instead Josh pushes the carcass further into a ditch. Then there’s their nonchalant disposal of the speedboat’s furniture at a dump. Surely that stuff can be recycled. These folks are not the humble, do-gooders they imagine themselves to be, and their undertaking is layered with false intentions. When something goes horribly wrong, the story then becomes a game of who will crack first.
Jesse Eisenberg’s emotionless mug was perfect for the uncaring entrepreneur in The Social Network and it works nicely here as well. He has the most wonderful paranoia face, which, in addition to his quick line readings, makes for wonderful qualities in a person perpetually looking over his shoulder. At one moment, he glances down at his dirt-covered hands, the earth on them a metaphor for the guilt in his conscience. But Josh’s dirty hands are little compared to the red, blotchy rash that infects Dena’s skin. She becomes Lady Macbeth, scratching at a redness that will not go away. “There’s nothing natural about this,” she says of the consequences, and unnatural deeds do breed unnatural troubles. Fanning is equally good, and as the one member of the trio whose remorse begins to crack her stoic exterior, she emanates a type of quiet psychosis. Sarsgaard’s seediness adds the right amount of detachment to the type of malevolence they are embarking upon, as if one has to have an indifferent demeanor to carry out these types of acts.
Night Moves‘ muted colors and quietness are reminiscent of Reichardt’s other films Wendy and Lucy and Old Joy,which were not only both soaked in the same tones but also shared the Oregon shooting location. Waving trees and the crunch of dead leaves permeate Reaichardt’s films, and like those dying leaves, the characters can expect to be crushed when the pressure gets to great. Night Moves‘ brilliance, however, lies in making us first side with the cause of its protagonists and then swiftly shift to hope that they’re discovered. It not only posits what you would do for a cause that you were devoted to, but will force you on the edge of your seat as you ponder the answer.