For want of a better description, Kelly Reichardt’s films are often called “minimalist.” They are made simply, without a lot of technical razzle dazzle, and they concentrate on characters, not big effects.
But just because Reichardt eschews the big melodramatic moment doesn’t mean her films are emotionally barren. Her “Old Joy” was an aching study of two men on the brink of middle age who have outgrown their friendship. “Wendy and Lucy” will resonate with anyone who has loved a pet. And her Western “Meek’s Cutoff” was a harrowing tale of settlers lost on their journey through the Great American Desert.
“Night Moves” may be her most conventional film to date. It’s a thriller, a genre with whose tropes we’re all familiar. And yet the gentle Reichardt touch is evident everywhere, with an emphasis on atmosphere and slowly building tension rather than big action set pieces.
In fact, the film’s biggest moment takes place off screen.
Early in “Night Moves” a young couple, Josh and Dena (Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning), visit a suburban husband/father who wants to sell his motorboat.
At least they pass themselves off as a couple. She’s talky and outgoing. He’s a bit silent, even a little sullen.
The boat is called “Night Moves” and Dena pays for it with in $10,000 in cash.
It soon becomes apparent that the pair are not romantically involved (although Josh would like them to be). Rather, they are eco-terrorists with a plan to load the boat with explosives and blow up a dam.
“Night Moves” follows Josh and Dena and a third conspirator – a scuffy ex-Marine named Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) – as they go about their preparations.
Their plan is almost scuttled when they are unable to obtain all the fertilizer they need to make their big bomb. But Dena — a rich girl used to getting her way — confidently cons a farm supply dealer into selling to her without the requisite paperwork.
Reichardt’s screenplay (written with her usual collaborator, Jonathan Raymond) is free of the pontificating which in a less austere work would allow the characters to justify their actions. At one point Josh – a singularly humorless type – bitterly makes a comment about damming rivers and killing salmon so that the rest of us idiots can keep running our iPods. But that’s about as much speechifying as the film tolerates.
We do visit a meeting of green activists. Some come off as hopelessly idealistic. Some as self-serving. Josh glumly takes it all in, knowing he has a secret that would put all these poseurs to shame.
Mostly “Night Moves” observes without commenting or passing judgment.
The actual bombing takes place at night as the three conspirators anchor the boat next to their target and then paddle away in a canoe – only to find their escape route blocked by a motorist with car trouble. Meanwhile the electric timer on the floating bomb is eating up the minutes they need to make a getaway. It’s a nail biter.
That’s the first half of the film. The second half is about the aftermath, when Josh and Dena must face the unexpected consequences of their actions.
Oddly enough, they change roles. Josh becomes increasingly more decisive while Dena, tormented by a bruised conscience, goes to pieces and threatens to expose them all.
There’s a sadness permeating “Night Moves” that is terribly haunting. For what they consider good reasons, these young people are doing something terribly destructive and morally questionable. (In that regard this picture is the perfect companion piece to one of my favorite docs of recent years, “If a Tree Falls,” about real-life eco-terrorists).
Though made cheaply, “Night Moves” is terrific looking. Christopher Blauvelt’s cinematography is equally adept at capturing the beauty of the Pacific Northwest and the landscape of the human face. The acting is unforced and utterly convincing (Eisenberg has played geeks so often that it’s a real pleasure to see him sink his teeth into a complex dramatic character).
But above all else this is a movie that gets under your skin. It’s deeply disturbing.