- Direction: 2.9 out of 3.0
- Writing: 1.4 out of 1.5
- Performances: 0.9 out of 1.0
- Cinematography: 0.8 out of 1.0
- Editing: 0.9 out of 1.0
- Sound & Music: 0.8 out of 1.0
- Creativity/Originality: 1.4 out of 1.5
- Total: 9.1 out of 10
Kelly Reichardt may be American independent cinema’s best kept secret. After four features she’s become a master filmmaker working on a mostly small, intimate scale on films that remain underseen despite the rave reviews and festival awards she piles up. For this reason, it isn’t surprising that Reichardt's superb fifth feature seems to be flying under the radar even with a cast that boasts Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard.
Of course in this case it’s possible that it’s the dark nature of the film itself that limits its audience. This look at a group of environmental activists who execute a plan to blow up a hydroelectric dam is a pretty solemn ride and Reichardt seems to acknowledge as much. In an early scene, a documentary filmmaker who screens her work on the destruction of the environment for an organic farming co-op, is met with complaints that too many horrific images make one feel that it’s just too much to take on and probably it’s too late anyway. Indeed.
Where most filmmakers would approach this material as an ensemble piece, Reichardt and co-writer Jonathan Raymond are far more interested in character than plot machinations and limit the activist group to three members. Sarsgaard as Harmon is a former marine explosives technician who serves as the group’s charismatic but reckless leader and Fanning plays Dena, whose wealthy parents unwittingly fund the operation, as a girl straddling the border of true womanhood as she makes the most important decision of her young life. Both are excellent, but it’s Eisenberg who is the real revelation here as the deeply conflicted Josh.
Even in films like Zombieland and 30 Minutes or Less, “conflicted” is part of Eisenberg's stock in trade so his career has been building toward this in a very real sense. It was just a matter of finding the right filmmaker who wouldn't cram his mouth full of dialogue or fallback on his sensibility for awkward comedy. Josh has relatively few lines of dialogue but his eyes contain multitudes. He functions as the planner of the group, making sure they each carefully follow every step and fretting over every inevitable slip-up.
The first half of Night Moves functions as a process film which gives the film a forward momentum, however deliberate, that is absent from Reichardt's other, equally accomplished, work. The film opens with Josh and Dena examining the dam up close and from there chronicles every step in the preparation of this act of protest. The influence of Robert Bresson is nearly tangible here, not only of his process films A Man Escaped and Pickpocket, but also his own contemplation of action in the face of a declining world, The Devil Probably.
Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, who worked with Reichardt on Meek’s Cutoff, captures the beauty of the film’s Oregon setting but resists the temptation of slipping into nature porn and Jeff Grace's shimmery score compliments the imagery without becoming a distraction. There's also a mastery of editing technique on display here as Reichardt creates white knuckle suspense out of a trip to a farm supply dealer. She doesn’t do it often, but when she chooses to go with touches from the thriller genre, they’re both classic and handled with an expert’s precision. When the boat pulls up to the dam, the scene playing out in shades of black with high concrete walls and harsh security lighting bordering the frame, the film looks and feels like so many prison escape films. This isn’t a coincidence. These characters must feel as though they’re escaping from a prison even as they only succeed in constructing smaller ones for themselves.
It’s a credit to the originality of the piece that it’s not a spoiler to reveal that the trio succeeds blowing up the dam and a credit to the director’s skill that the film works as well as a character study as it does as a thriller. In it’s second half the film downshifts and the focus narrows to Eisenberg's Josh as he sinks into an existence of paranoia and suspicion and finally desperation. This section plays like an expansion of the last five minutes of The Sopranos series finale with character and audience in lockstep; no matter where your sympathies lie, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
There’s no moralizing here on the part of the filmmaker. She never condemns her characters for their actions but she also refuses to co-sign their righteousness. Night Moves ultimately succeeds in capturing the feeling of living in a world that you know is fucked up, and getting more so by the day, but struggling to find the proper response. Reichardt does offer a glimpse of hope, of a faint glimmer of light at the end of a very long dark tunnel. “I think looking for one big plan is part of the problem,” says the documentary filmmaker,”I’m focused on small plans. Lots of small plans.”