The films of Kelly Reichardt have often explored the relationship between people and their environment – whether in tune or fatally at odds. Like a polar opposite to the autumnal flow of Old Joy (2006), the director’s latest delves into the ambiguous world of fanatical environmentalism in a location ubiquitous with her oeuvre, Oregon. Where as her previous work, Meek’s Cutoff (2010), strained relentlessly against its genre conventions and was widely labelled as an anti-western, Night Moves (2013) gives similar credence to the traditions of the thriller. This gripping film eschews typical tropes and character archetypes in favour of gradually wrenching the audience’s collective stomach with a building tension.
Josh (Jesse Eisenberg, in one of his last roles before taking the mantle of Lex Luthor in Batman vs. Superman), Dena (Dakota Fanning) and Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) are the trio of righteous activists at the heart of this narratively simple but morally complex situation. Dropping straight into a plot in motion, Josh and Dena start the film surveying a hydro-electric dam and attending community meetings between shifts at the farm and natural spa respectively. Soon enough, though, they have purchased a boat and are driving to the home of their co-conspirator the veteran Harmon. Their they pack the vessel with fertiliser explosive before using it in their attack against the dam and fleeing into the night. Their actions, however, have consequences and slowly anxieties grow as reticence, guilt and fear engulf.
Reichardt is a director who trades in quiet moments and undulating rhythms, so it initially seems as though a thriller would be a strange choice for her. Of course, Night Moves creates its suspense precisely because it flies in the face of expectation. It goes without saying that double-crosses, chases and shootouts are of little concern but equally threads are picked up and left fluttering in the wind to both excoriating and infuriating effect. When the film stretches to involve something approaching a love triangle, it undermines the wider subtlety found in serene forest landscapes or two characters sitting wordless in the front of their truck. Christopher Blauvelt’s cinematography enhances both of these elements accentuating drab modernity and the Oregon surroundings with equal aplomb. That the visuals hold more sway than the dialogue is all the more surprising given Eisenberg’s casting in the central role.
Known for his fast-talking smart-arse characters, here Eisenberg plays somewhat against type, embracing taciturnity and minimal conversation. He imbues Josh with a cold eye and an extremist’s confidence in his position and values that is an interesting departure for him and anchors an ambitious character study of a true anti-hero. In contrast, the screenplay by the director and her regular writing partner Jonathan Raymond, does highlight the myriad other views on the ecological state of things without ever asserting that one position is correct. Reichardt is far more interested in questions than answers, and with Night Moves she wraps them up in an absorbing anti-thriller.