Realism is too imprecise a term for Kelly Reichardt’s filmmaking. She is more of a materialist, determined to capture how the world looks, how it feels and, at a granular level of detail, how it works. Her stories tend to be simple and starkly told. In "Old Joy," two friends take a camping trip that tests their intimacy and raises painful, unspoken questions about their identities as 21st-century American men. In "Wendy and Lucy," a young woman and her dog are stranded by car trouble en route to Alaska. In "Meek’s Cutoff," settlers in mid-19th-century Oregon lose their way.
"Night Moves," Reichardt’s sharp and haunting new feature, comes closer than its predecessors to fitting into an established genre. (If "Meek’s Cutoff" was a Western, it was one that shot down every frontier cliché in its path.) This one can be described as a thriller with political overtones, about three radical environmentalists plotting to blow up a dam. Their motives, while not fully articulated — there is never a lot of talking in a Kelly Reichardt movie — seem to be a mixture of despair, muddled idealism and boredom. Their seriousness is unquestionable, but the film is less interested in assessing the justice of their cause than in probing the contours of their experience.
Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) works on an organic farm in Oregon, not far from the town where Dena (Dakota Fanning) works in a New Age spa. They don’t belong to any larger organization but rather seem to be part of a loose movement that seeks to counter corporate power and ecological destruction through local, uncoordinated acts. Their only other comrade is Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), a friend of Josh’s who lives in a trailer in the woods closer to their target.
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As in most good crime movies, a lot of suspense is generated by planning and preparation. Josh and Dena drive out to the suburbs to buy the power boat whose name gives the movie its title and later, with Harmon, try to buy a large quantity of ammonium nitrate fertilizer for their bomb. The audience is in a familiar and by no means unpleasant state of ambivalent dread. Because you can’t help empathizing in some way with the people you see on screen, you root for them to succeed, even as the danger and senselessness of their action make you hope otherwise.
While Reichardt (who wrote the screenplay with Jon Raymond, her frequent writing partner) keeps your attention fixed on the procedural elements of the plot, she also invites you to think about other matters. The three conspirators are unwavering in their conviction, but conversations around the table at the family farm where Josh harvests cabbage articulate some of the film’s ethical themes. So does the juxtaposition of the rhythms of agricultural labor and beauty of the Northwestern landscape with the standardized drabness of parking lots and big-box stores.
What seems to unite Josh, Dena and Harmon — and to cause Josh particular anguish — is the longing to find some other way to live. The glimpses of the modern agrarian counterculture have a rough, unassuming authenticity, but the film presents an arcadia haunted by anxiety, by the unseen but atmospherically palpable specters of climate change, government interference and big money.
The three would-be eco-terrorists are troubled by smaller matters as well, notably the sexual tension — already present between Josh and Dena — that pulls tighter once they arrive at Harmon’s place. The three main performances are flawless; you get a clear sense of each character’s personality, including each one’s capacity to be unpredictable.
They are not necessarily admirable — it is not unreasonable to conclude that they are in fact very stupid — but the lostness of these young people makes it hard not to care about them. (The same was true of Michelle Williams’ character in "Wendy and Lucy.")
In following the logic of their action, however, the movie loses its own way a bit. Reichardt’s plots are blessedly austere, and it is a little too perverse to say that the problem with this modestly scaled movie is that too much happens. But some of the climactic turns seem to follow the kind of narrative rules that this film, and this filmmaker, have otherwise defied.
Still, it is hard to leave the theater unshaken, and hard to shake the memory of Fanning’s blend of openness and cunning, Sarsgaard’s bluff nervousness or Eisenberg’s brooding, inarticulate silence. You may not be able to figure out what Josh, Dena and Harmon really want, but it would be dangerous to ignore them.
Review by A.O. Scott, New York Times