Environmentalists Josh (Eisenberg) and Dena (Fanning) come to believe that working in agricultural communes and health stores doesn’t go far enough to satisfy their eco-activism. Hooking up with ex-Marine Harmon (Sarsgaard), an explosives ace, they conspire to blow up a nearby hydroelectric dam.
Having put her own stamp on Western mythology with Meek’s Cutoff, Kelly Reichardt turns her attentions to the thriller genre with Night Moves, a similarly intelligent, nuanced take on a Hollywood staple. Her most ‘conventional’ film to date, the tale of three activists plotting to blow up a hydroelectric dam owes something to ’70s paranoia flicks but is bathed in Reichardt’s measured, environmentally attuned sensibility.
Working with regular screenwriter Jonathan Raymond, Reichardt builds the film in three uneven but distinct sections. The first is a procedural, almost forensic in its details of the prep work to blow up a dam — the buying of a boat (it gives the film its title), the tricksy negotiation of securing ammonium nitrate in bulk. Mainstream cinema would gloss over such plot points in a montage, but Reichardt plays it for real, drawing out fascinating details and odd moments of surreal humour: as the trio try to pin down their final arrangements, a happy camper walks over to make inane conversation. The moment is Hitchcockian in its mix of black comedy and tension.
Reichardt raises the suspense levels during an expertly staged blow-up-the-dam set-piece. From here, the film switches to a less compelling denouement, in which the gang return to normal life only for doubts, guilt and recriminations to cause fissures. While it rings true, it feels anti-climactic. Perhaps the sense of deflation is what Reichardt planned.
Jesse Eisenberg (in his most non-verbal performance to date), Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard do well with cold, curt characters, making them count with little to go on. Carefully Reichardt doesn’t lionise or explain away these eco-avengers. Instead, she makes telling points about the effectiveness of terrorism, the flimsiness of idealism and how good intentions get perverted by a single event. As with all her work, she also draws atmosphere and meaning from the landscape, Christopher Blauvelt’s sombre, beautiful lensing of scorched earth and depleted woodlands compounding the mystery and melancholy.
Gripping, smart and well-tooled, this greenies-on-a-mission movie gives terrific build-up and a riveting central set-piece, with only a slight dip at the end. If she is looking for another genre to subvert, a Reichardt superhero movie would be a sight to behold.