I feel like I’ve been using terms like “watchful” a lot about films I’ve seen recently, as if there’s a lot more filmmakers making observant little stories about people which are suffused with a sort of quiet observancy as they go about their lives, and Kelly Reichardt’s films more than most have this quality. Her earlier features, Old Joy (2006) and Wendy and Lucy (2008) are filled with this kind of tense tranquillity, and I particularly loved Meek’s Cutoff (2010) for its story of a group of women in 19th century Oregon picking their way slowly across country. This new film too is set in Oregon and has all of the same qualities, a slow-burn story of a group of friends splitting apart.
It’s very much a film of two parts. The first half has all the tense forward momentum of a heist film, as a group of environmental activists (or eco-terrorists, if you will) plot to blow up a dam. Even though their actions are destructive, the film puts you right there amongst them, and you find yourself almost willing them to get away with it and achieve their optimistic goals, for each wants to spur the world towards being more environmentally-conscious. At the heart of the film is Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), who has a good job working for a collective organic farm, and who seems to be close to Dena (Dakota Fanning), a young woman working at a health spa, whose wealthier background allows the plan to move forward. They are aiding the shadowy Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), whose plan this appears to be, and who lives ‘off the grid’ out in the wooded wilds of upstate Oregon.
However, this is only half the film, and there’s an abrupt change of pace once the plan has been put into effect, as the three deal with their consciences with regards to its outcome. This is where the relationship between Josh and Dena becomes particularly fractured, and in which Josh reveals all his nervy paranoia. It’s also where the payoff to the minutely detailed ‘heist’ of the first half follows through, as Night Moves reveals itself to be a film that’s about the psychology of terrorist action, bringing home with these three middle-class white characters how a well-meaning intention can become warped and distorted. The film tracks Josh as he becomes progressively disenchanted with his ideals and is ironically pushed by his destructive actions towards the very capitalist society to which he had initially seemed so opposed.
The acting is all excellent, of course, and if Eisenberg seems to be doing a version of his familiar sullen loner, substituting quiet tenseness for his usual nervy chatter, it’s a character very nicely detailed. Fanning too extends a run of strong performances with her conflicted Dena, who has in some ways the most difficult part, revealing all the vulnerabilities that lie behind Dena’s very strong and motivated facade (never clearer than in the sequence where she must purchase a large quantity of fertiliser for the bomb without having any ID on her).
The very strong and brilliantly orchestrated first half is the highlight while the film is running, but the second half opens up questions which linger for some time afterwards, extending and deepening the mystery of the film’s surface. As the title suggests (ostensibly taken from the name of the speedboat they buy, which forms part of the group’s plan), there is a tense, dark atmosphere suffusing the film, and there’s certainly a quality to the cinematography and the settings, all earthy and overcast, which harks back to tense psychological thrillers of decades earlier. In all, Reichardt has crafted a film that takes an aspect of modern society and gives it the timeless resonance of a morality play.
Director Kelly Reichardt; Writers Jonathan Raymond and Reichardt; Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt; Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Thursday 17 October 2013.