Night Moves, from director and co-writer Kelly Reichardt, is about three activists coming together to pull off a stunt of eco-terrorism. Set in Ashland, Oregon, and the surrounding areas, Night Moves follows Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), an employee of an organic farm, as he enlists the aid of Dena (Dakota Fanning) and Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) in the destruction of a nearby dam. All three are amateurs, and none of them are prepared to deal with the consequences of their actions.
Their plan is fairly simple, pack a motorboat—named Night Moves—full of homemade explosives, float it out to the dam, set the timers, and head for the hills. The first half of the movie follows their every step as they go about purchasing the nitrogen, setting up the motorboat, planning their escape, etc. It doesn’t play like a procedural, more like a slow burn of suspense accompanying the step-by-step process. This suspense is further heightened every time the occasional looky-loo drops in on their conversations. Each one feels like a threat, the moment where everything falls apart, but these people never pose an actual threat.
The central set piece, deploying Night Moves against the dam, is a masterclass of direction and suspense. Reichardt wisely keeps the audience in the dark by rarely cutting to the ticking stopwatch and never cuts away from the three’s perspective. We are never exactly sure when that bomb will go off or who might be around the next corner to disrupt the plan.
The second half of the movie focuses primarily on Josh as he deals with the guilt of his actions. Dynamiting the dam caused the death of a nearby camper, a fact that Dena does not deal with well. Josh is somewhat upset, and Harmon isn’t bothered in the slightest. In fact, his character is never seen again, reduced to a companionless voice on the phone.
Night Moves is not a movie that explores why people do what they do, but how they deal with what they have done. The occasional comment about conspiracy from Harmon and the one instance where Josh mutters under his breath about “those people” is pretty much all we need to know where they are coming from. But, this is also where I think Reichard lost me. She holds the viewer at arm’s length, forcing them to find their own way to identify with these characters, something that I never quite accomplished.
However, I freely admit that there is something here, something that gets to the heart of action. Our actions always come with consequences, and we should be prepared for those consequences. We may not expect them, nor do we have to plan for them, but we should always be aware of them.
Night Moves (2013)
Directed by: Kelly Reichardt
Written by: Jonathan Raymond & Kelly Reichardt
Produced by: Saemi Kim, Neil Kopp, Chris Maybach, Anish Savjani, Rodrigo Teixeira
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard
Cinedigm, Rated R, Running time 112 minutes, Released May 30, 2014