Now an established voice in American indie cinema, Kelly Reichardt has created films that consistently demonstrate a sensitivity towards characterisation that address with compassion, a diversity of approaches to the human condition. What drives an individual to self deception, is probed in Old Joy (2006); a solitary, marginal existence, in Wendy and Lucy (2008); survival on the frontier in Meek’s Cutoff (2010). Each present individuals living on the edge of society, making them both inherently curious and relatable by turns. Lives lived outside the mainstream are again a focus of Night Moves (2013) which sees three radical environmentalists plan the explosion of a large river dam.
The effect of such an undertaking to the group – as individuals and as a unit – is examined in relation to both the practicalities of maintaining their chosen lifestyles before and after the event, as well the psychological burden of being responsible for causing significant damage. This provides substantial scope for exploring the characters, nervous Joshua (Jessie Eisenberg), passionate Dena (Dakota Fanning) and determined and paranoid Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), and yet somehow they each become diluted, and their one big action comes to entirely define them. Reichardt and regular screenwriting collaborator Jonathan Raymond carefully establish the core relationship between Dena and Joshua, revealing information about their past dealings gradually.
A community film screening sees Dena voice her cynical attitude to ‘big idea’ conservationism, whilst Joshua’s logical approach to the ‘small’ sacrifices in the name of real difference is demonstrated when the pair pass a dead doe by the side of the road – discovering that it’s pregnant, Joshua simply shifts it from the roadside, perhaps concluding that he isn’t capable of saving it. Real tension between the pair however, is perhaps inevitably revealed once they meet with Harmon, who has known Joshua for years and is suspicious, initially, of Dena. Each urgently desires to prove their commitment to the cause, and regards the others with distanced judgement until they have proved their worth. An early scene in which Dena acquires the required amount of Ammonium Nitrate using tactics of persuasion is compelling as a test of her resolve and the other’s trust in her. The pressure of an untested dynamic brought together for a high stakes heist of sorts, is familiar narrative territory, and though the characters seek to gain change rather than wealth, for the first half of the film – plotting, implementing the plan – Night Moves plays effectively with this heist movie familiarity. As with anything this well planned, we can’t help wondering – what will go wrong?
Reichardt is as interested in what happens to the characters after their explosive misadventure as the act itself, and it’s in the film’s second half that the focus shifts to Joshua’s perspective, as he attempts to slip seamlessly into his life working and living at a cooperative organic farm. Until this point, Reichardt’s subtle approach emphasising the characters non-verbal, gestural communication makes for a gripping, slow-burning thriller, with performances – particularly Fanning – that convey the shift from measured anticipation to deflated realisation following the group’s weekend of eco- destruction. What is less effective is a certain repetitiveness with regards the concentration on Joshua’s growing concern that Dena will abandon her silence. Eisenberg’s nervous-man persona is now so familiar that it’s hard to see any nuance here, and keeping Fanning largely off-screen until the climax feels like a missed opportunity to explore the weight of her emotional disintegration. Such a misplaced focus in the last act doesn’t however disrupt Night Moves effect entirely, as Reichardt’s assured direction has so successfully drawn the viewer into pondering the characters morally ambiguous and naïve intentions, that it’s sure to provoke discussion long after the credits roll.