The new thriller Night Moves finds Kelly Reichardt, one of American independent cinema’s smartest and most talented young directors, staging her most ambitious feature yet. Where Reichardt’s previous films, like 2008’s Wendy and Lucy and 2006’s Old Joy—which, for my money, is among finest American features of the 2000s—were quiet, observational, small in scale, Night Moves continues the ambitious trajectory toward grander, higher-stakes narratives that the filmmaker began with her terrific, haunting 2010 neo-western Meek’s Cutoff.
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Producers: Saemi Kim, Neil Kopp, Chris Maybach, Anish Savjani, Rodrigo Teixiera
Writers: Jonathan Raymond, Kelly Reichardt
Cinematographer: Christopher Blauvelt
Editor: Kelly Reichardt
Music: Jeff Grace
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard
Premiere: August 31, 2013 – Venice Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: May 30, 2014
US Distributor: Cinedigm
That isn't to suggest that Reichardt has shed her distinctive style and tone—each scene still manages to burrow into some dark, queasy corner of human psychology and interaction, rife with tension and uncertainty yet always belied by lackadaisical and naturalistic pacing in the dialogue and action. But in Night Moves, she deploys this hypnotic, quietly tangled realism in service of a stark morality play, haunted by its central characters’ oblique psychological demons.
The film’s story follows three radical environmental activists in rural southern Oregon in the preparation, execution, and aftermath of a clandestine plan to blow up a dam. As the film begins, Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) and Dena (Dakota Fanning) buy a boat and drive into the woods to meet their third co-conspirator, Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), whereupon the trio begins loading the boat with fertilizer and explosive equipment.
There’s a loveliness to the sequences of rote, steady preparation that follow, nestled into the gently rising anxiety of the narrative’s first act, with each character’s frayed nerves creeping into view in distinctive ways. Even the execution of their plan comes across as muted—a way station on the characters’ shared journey and not its endpoint. Days later—after our protagonists, observing key tenets of activist culture, have ostensibly severed all contact for the foreseeable future—news arrives that a wayward camper sleeping on the banks of the river may have been killed in the blast, and the final chapter’s tragic trajectory comes into view, only faintly at first but soon with devastating clarity.
Reichardt’s longtime collaborator Jon Raymond (who shares her spare style and has written nearly all of her films) provides the screenplay, and it's fascinating to watch him wrap his keen sense of subtlety around such a potent, fraught tale. The actors lend a fair amount of depth to his web of psychological suspense and complex conflict, but the script feels stretched thin between trying to craft great character moments and trying to keep the plot’s momentum alive.
Fanning gives the best performance of the leads, imbuing Dena with intelligence, pathos, and principle, implicitly undermining Josh and Harmon's reductive characterizations of her as a "rich kid" out of her depth. Eisenberg fares a bit worse, and it often feels like he’s not been given terribly much to do. His stiff demeanor—within which lies great capacity for gravitas, as evinced by his roles in David Fincher’s The Social Network and, more recently, Richard Ayoade’s The Double—keeps the audience at too safe a distance from his character’s sympathies until it’s too late to care much about his decisions. Meanwhile, the story's other characters—even Harmon, to an extent—figure largely as ciphers against whom Josh and Dena incubate and negotiate and incubate their respective paranoias in the film’s back half.
After her debut, 1994’s River of Grass, Reichardt was unable to find funding for further projects for quite some time, outside of a smattering of shorts. When returned to the world of features with Old Joy over two decades later, she had found a remarkably distinctive and versatile stylistic voice that propelled each of her successive films to indie success and critical adoration. Night Moves may be the most flawed film to date of this latter era, but that speaks more to the superb work preceding it than it does to the film itself. Clever, laconic and preternaturally psychologically acute, this great thriller finds a masterful director stepping out toward new narrative ground with her unique voice intact and strong as ever.