Early in Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves, a film about pollution and its effects on the environment is shown to a group of Oregon environmentalists, including Dena (Dakota Fanning) and Josh (Jesse Eisenberg). Post-screening, the film’s director is bombarded with the usual kinds of questions any filmmaker is forced to field at such an event (surely there’s a cut featuring someone asking what the budget was somewhere out there), but a defiant Dena only wants to know what sort of “big plan” can be put into action to right the wrongs against our planet. With just one question, Dena puts all of her cards on the table, and so does the film.
Dena and Josh are primarily concerned with big plans – and they’ve got one. Intent on blasting a hole in the burgeoning industrialization taking over their state, the two have been slowly cooking up a plan to do just that, by busting a hole in a nearby dam. Aided by Josh’s friend Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), the three are already in the final stages of their ecoterrorism scheme by the time Night Moves kicks up, and the film’s first act ticks steadily toward to their criminal (and perhaps criminally stupid) act.
It’s obvious from the start that something will go wrong with their plan – even small details haven’t been worked out just right (Harmon hasn’t gathered the amount of fertilizer he promised, there are too many people around at their chosen spot of destruction), but what ultimately breaks down all three of the film’s central characters and their interpersonal relationships can be sliced into two neat categories: basic human emotion and basic human stupidity. The emotional complications of the film work to fine-tuned effect, and Reichardt’s interest in keeping her characters both human and fallible are what really make the film work. The promise of criminal mayhem is just a bonus.
Like all of Reichardt’s previous films, Night Moves relies on an economical use of dialogue, and all three of her stars are able to convey essential details in ways that don’t involve a whole bunch of jawing about it. Eisenberg’s austerity in particular serves him well here, a general sense of reserve that only cracks in the most extreme of situations. It’s handy that all those silences get filled in with Jeff Grace’s incredible score, one that sounds damn good on its own, but that adds immeasurably to the emotional effect of the most terrifying scenes (and, honestly, even the most innocuous of them).
That lack of superfluous chatter also serves to keep the film’s second act, a marvel of tension and observation, tight enough to make audiences members actually grip their seats (a particularly tense sequence put something that could only be described as a cold knot of dread in my stomach, one that wouldn’t let up for quite some time). All that tension eventually melts into a stiff paranoia, and few actors can look as unhinged by the sound of a parking car than Jesse Eisenberg. That paranoia-laced third act does go off the rails a bit, with a climax that could be described as something ripped from the page of Dostoyevsky, but which really feels flaccid and expected in comparison to the rest of such a well-made and neatly presented film.
The Upside: Coolly effective performances from all three leads, a solid and evocative score from Jeff Grace, a wonderfully tense middle half, Reichardt’s sparse dialogue works to great effect.
The Downside: A predictable and fuzzy final act dilutes its effectiveness as a whole.
On the Side: Paul Dano, who starred in Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, was originally slated for Eisenberg’s role.
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