Night Moves (2013) — Image via nightmovesmovie.com

Night Moves

Directed by Kelly Reichardt (2013)

Director Kelly Reichardt is known for making films that linger over images, prioritize mood over plot, and are in no hurry to get from Point A to Point B. So it should come as no surprise that, when Reichardt decided to make a thriller, she made it a slow thriller. The result is Night Moves, the tale of three environmental activists as they prepare, execute, and cope with the aftermath of a massive act of ecosabotage.

Night Moves (2013) — Image via nightmovesmovie.comTo the extent that Night Moves has a protagonist, it is Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), an intense, brooding young man who lives and works at an organic farming cooperative in the hippie mecca of Ashland, Oregon. Frustrated by his fellow environmentalists’ willingness to settle for what he sees as small and partial measures, Josh has gotten involved in a loose network of radicals that includes Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), a middle-aged ex-Marine and veteran of the movement who lives in a trailer deep in the woods, and Dena (Dakota Fanning), a recent college dropout from a wealthy Connecticut family who works in a new-age spa. Together, the three have hatched a plan to bomb a local hydroelectric dam, hoping to return the surrounding area to its natural state and, more importantly, get people thinking about the impact of energy production and consumption on the environment.

Night Moves (2013) — Image via nightmovesmovie.comFor the first half of the film, we watch these three characters take the final preparatory steps toward and then carry out their plan. In the process, we start to gain some insight into the tensions between their different personalities and motivations. Through their words and actions, we gather that Josh and Dena are both concerned about Harmon’s seeming recklessness, that Harmon is worried about Dena’s relative inexperience in radical direct action, and that Josh doesn’t understand how Harmon and Dena are able to laugh and joke in the midst of something so serious. In the second half of the film, after the successful explosion of the dam (something we never see, only hear), these tensions start to come to a head, particularly after the news media reveal that a man who had been sleeping by the river has disappeared, presumably swept away by the rush of water.

Night Moves (2013) — Image via nightmovesmovie.comAmong Night Moves‘s actors, Eisenberg deserves particular praise for skillfully portraying a character who is unlikeable from the start (with a notable penchant for curtly telling people — especially Dena — what to do), only gets worse over time, and yet must ultimately garner some level of sympathy from the audience. Despite his stated desire to talk to others about his feelings, Josh is at a loss when it comes to relating to human beings. He can show tenderness toward animals, but he always seems to fall back on treating people as a means to an end. Meanwhile, Fanning and Sarsgaard do admirable jobs of setting off Josh’s sober demeanor with, respectfully, Dena’s earnest excitement and Harmon’s jaded casualness. These are believable people — people who are coming from very different places experientially and emotionally and who do not seem to completely understand what compels them to come together to commit this one sensational act.

Ultimately, the most notable aspect of Night Moves is Reichardt’s success at creating suspense without making something that feels like a traditional suspense film. That is not to say that she shuns the tropes of cinematic suspense entirely, but she subverts them into something different — something fundamentally dependent on the audience’s ability to feel empathy for the characters despite maintaining critical distance from their actions. The result is a memorable film that suggests a fruitful way forward for Reichardt’s subtle, grounded, and contemplative style of filmmaking.

The Film Society of Minneapolis/St. Paul is screening Night Moves at St. Anthony Main Theatre through June 19.

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.