Night Moves (2013)

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.

Night Moves film posterCREDITS
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.

The East (2013)

It’s always a precarious thing, trying to capture in a fiction film a flavour of contemporary counterculture. You only have to look back to attempts to depict the earnest ferment of young minds in the 1970s to see how laughable the outcome can seem in hindsight. Of course that’s not entirely fair: it’s not all to do with the filmmakers or the period fashions. In part, it’s to do with the way that earnestness (much like faith) comes across on film: in the darkness of the auditorium, passively taking in images, it’s difficult not to be a jaded, judgemental cynic. This is never more so than when faced with the passionate belief of characters who are trying to actively engage with a corrupt system. There are times when the protagonists of The East, young ecological activists (anarchists, perhaps, or “terrorists” to the authorities), come across as a bit ridiculous, but they’re certainly not fools.

Fiction film has never seemed a particularly effective medium for protest, and I can’t imagine it ever being so. There have always been attempts to create films that challenge the viewer and move the argument beyond the auditorium, whether the bold agitprop of Soviet filmmakers in the 1920s, or Latin American filmmakers like Fernando Solanas with La hora de los hornos (The Hour of the Furnaces, 1968), who actually programmed in discussion breaks to screenings. Fiction’s strength is in being able to give a bit of insight as to how activists operate and why they do what they do, and perhaps thereby create doubt in the viewer’s mind as to the veracity of society’s orthodoxies. As such the protagonist here is Jane, a corporate spy played by co-writer Brit Marling, who infiltrates the group as an undercover agent called Sarah, and comes to harbour doubts about what she’s doing.

Aside from being the title of the film, The East is the name the activists give to their group, which engages in ‘jams’ — which is to say, interventions against corporations they perceive have wronged people or the environment. The film opens with video footage they’ve uploaded to the internet showing them pumping oil into the home of a CEO whose company is responsible for massive oil spills. However, as the company is a client of Jane/Sarah’s firm, she is assigned to get information on them that they can then pass to the FBI. As the company’s boss Sharon, Patricia Clarkson does an excellent job as confidant (and arch-manipulator) of the younger Jane.

It’s clear that the activists are all well-educated middle-class kids, many having coming from the same enshrined power base as the capitalist moguls they are targeting. Their choice in resisting and fighting against these power structures is shown to be a result of their education and world travel. As a result, on several occasions in the film their resistance group seems closer to a cult: they have a leader figure filled with a sort of evangelical zeal (Alexander Skarsgård’s Benji), not to mention rituals of initiation and group bonding that reaffirm their communal social structure and attachment to the environment. It’s Jane/Sarah’s experience that mediates this for the audience, and the precarious line the film must walk is in moving from our initial shared experience of their group as being rather affectedly ridiculous, to one in which Sarah (and hopefully the audience too) feels more sympathy and engagement with their beliefs.

The East is in the end a gripping film that never mocks or condescends to its earnest protagonists, as they engage with real issues affecting the world. Playing the wary central character, who limns the divide between the forces of authority and anarchy, Brit Marling does a wonderful job, yet I’m not sure that either she or the film manages to quite carry me through as an audience member to the denouement. In the darkness of a cinema, I remain a cynic to the end, but then I equally can’t imagine the film’s activists being much enamoured of cinema and its passive spectatorship. Still, it’s a bold attempt to try to be more than just a petit bourgeois escapist pleasure, while being satisfying on just that level.

The East film posterCREDITS
Director Zal Batmanglij; Writers Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling; Cinematographer Roman Vasyanov Роман Васьянов; Starring Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgård, Ellen Page, Patricia Clarkson; Length 116 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Sunday 30 June 2013.