Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard
Kelly Reichardt has quietly made a name for herself in the American independent film scene with a series of carefully constructed, tense and slow-burning dramas, most famously the ‘anti-western’ Meek’s Cutoff. In Night Moves, Reichardt shifts her scope from the old West to contemporary political movements through three young radical activists and their mission to explode a hydroelectric dam.
Josh (Eisenberg) works in a co-operative farm, and meets with Dena (Fanning) in secret to plan their attack on the dam. They leave their town together and drive to the woods, where they meet Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), who Josh has met on previous ‘missions’. They fill a boat with fertilizer and homemade explosives, they proceed with their plan- but when something goes wrong, the group begins to fall apart.
This synopsis makes the film sound like a standard thriller, as does the trailer. But the film itself could almost be called an anti-thriller. I say almost, because the film is definitely thrilling, so this would be a misnomer; in one scene, Dena has to convince an agricultural merchant to let them buy fertilizer in bulk without ID. She navigates her way through the conversation, and despite best efforts is about to be rumbled when two other farmers come in and she can turn them to her side, at which point the salesman gives in. The construction of the scene is almost forensic- she bottles it, goes outside, talks to Josh and Harmon, goes back in, talks to the salesman, almost fails, succeeds due to chance- and every move is carefully controlled to ratchet the tension. This is definitely thrilling, but Night Moves sets itself apart from other thrillers. Explaining how means looking closer at Reichardt’s directing style.
Reichardt has a very documentarian style- her camera constantly picks up little features of a scene, making her world feel populated and lifelike. In one scene, as the trio enter a campsite, we see people watching them from inside their RV, a Pomeranian dog sitting on the dashboard; a teenager walking with his parents complains he can’t walk any further, that his ‘ankles are breaking’. These micro-vignettes expand the scope of the film, making the world feel more real. But there’s a strong thematic purpose to these moments as well: they show the isolation of the characters, who take themselves away from others through their own extremism. They reject everything about the way of life of these people, and shun themselves as a result. We’re not just looking at a world around them; we are a world around them, looking in. Reichardt used a similar trick to great effect in Meek’s Cutoff, framing the film in claustrophobic 4:3 instead of landscape-focused 2.35 widescreen to reflect what seeing the world while wearing a bonnet is like. But in Night Moves, this decision is reflected throughout Reichardt’s directorial choices instead of a format choice, making it less intrusive.
Just because the characters are extremists is not to say they don’t have some sort of life. They have a masquerade where they keep up work- Josh has the farm, Dena works at a spa or holistic therapy centre. Only Harmon appears to have no work, and is also by sheer geography the most isolated as he lives in the woods. In this sense, Josh and Dena both have their ordinary lives, where they are basically modern hippies, and their extraordinary lives, where they are domestic terrorists. Where Night Moves sets itself apart from other thrillers is that the focus of the film isn’t to thrill, but to portray a tension between these ordinary and extraordinary lives. After their dam mission, Josh and Dena are almost immediately pulled over by a cop. For the cop, it’s just routine after an attack- she never seems to suspect them. But for Josh and Dena, they have barely escaped; this is one of the most important moments of their lives. And after the attack, the two have to face facts: their extraordinary actions have barely changed the world, but have shattered their ordinary lives. Here Reichardt offers something much deeper than the standard thriller: what happens after? What are the effects of these sorts of action?
In her special anti-thriller project, Reichardt is supported by some amazing performances from both Jesse Eisenberg and Dakota Fanning. Eisenberg has excelled at playing isolation (The Social Network provides ample evidence), and Fanning is able in her evocation of a slow breaking. Sarsgaard is harder to judge as he’s more of a ghost in this film- appearing briefly, then only over phone calls, and far away- but his performance is layered and complex; he plays a layabout, but also a veteran terrorist. The cinematography of the film is also perfect, lovingly rendered in a great DVD transfer. Where lots of DVDs cause loss of detail in dark areas of the screen, this one has obviously been produced with special attention towards the mostly-dark-forests Night Moves, and detail is preserved perfectly. The stillness of Reichardt’s imagery- as the trio glide over the lake in the boat, toward the dam- is evocative of the film itself: a glacial unfolding of events, coldly observed as they move inexorably towards a predestined fate.