When deciding whether or not to see Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves, you must first forget about both the Gene Hackman movie and the Bob Seger song of the same title. (Not so easy to do—Arthur Penn’s 1975 neo-noir was haunting, and good luck getting a Bob Seger song out of your head.) This Night Moves is something all its own: a slow-burning suspense thriller about a trio of eco-terrorists conspiring to blow up a dam, it’s directed by Reichardt with the concision and elegance of a chess master.
Reichardt makes films that, whatever their subject matter, feel airy and open, like Japanese landscape paintings. She likes to use the cinematic equivalent of “white space”: extended periods of silence, for example, or individual shots and whole scenes that last just a beat longer than you expect (though the movie still comes in at just under two hours). She’s a filmmaker who listens and looks patiently, whether she’s following two semi-estranged male friends on a camping trip (Old Joy), chronicling the struggles of a young homeless woman and her dog (Wendy and Lucy), or tracking the uneasy journey of a group of white settlers and their Indian hostage across the Old West (Meek’s Cutoff).
Night Moves, which was co-scripted by Reichardt and her longtime writing partner Jon Raymond, ventures further into genre territory than anything she’s done before. There’s a crime to be plotted, illegal material to be obtained, policemen to avoid. But the film retains Reichardt’s characteristic minimalist style and interest in psychological nuance, aided by restrained but electric performances from Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, and Peter Sarsgaard.
As the film begins, Josh (Eisenberg) and Dena (Fanning) stand together on the viewing deck of a colossal hydroelectric dam in Oregon. They could be young lovers on a road trip, pulling over to take a look at the view—but as becomes clear even from a few sparse lines of dialogue, they’re nothing of the sort. Dena and Josh can barely stand each other; they’re scoping out the dam in the last stages of a plan to detonate it, using a pleasure boat packed with nitrogen-enriched fertilizer as a floating bomb. (This information is, refreshingly, never delivered to the viewer in flat expositional form; we’re left to infer the rough contours of the plan from offhanded bits of dialogue in the first few scenes.) Dour uber-greenie Josh, the logistical mastermind of the group, has his doubts about the reliability of Dena, an idealistic college dropout from a rich family who’s helping pick up the tab for the operation. (She buys the boat—$10,000 in cash—in exchange for the right to tag along and play eco-terrorist herself.) And both of them, understandably, have their doubts about Harmon (Sarsgaard), a shady ex-Marine who styles himself an explosives expert while not being totally forthcoming about his ex-con past.
Night Moves’ second half, which deals with the psychological effect of the operation on its rapidly unraveling perpetrators, doesn’t quite live up to the superbly established tension of the first (the two halves are joined by a bravura suspense sequence, fully 20 minutes long and virtually dialogue-free, in which we witness in detail the preparation and placement of the boat-turned-bomb.) But the movie is never less than mesmerizing to watch, with a mood of ambient paranoia and hushed menace—aided by the light-flooded cinematography of Christopher Blauvelt and Jeff Grace’s anxious, thrumming score. The lead performances converge into a true ensemble—we really believe these three damaged, dissimilar people have lived through something together—but it’s Eisenberg’s alternately naive and ruthless ideologue whose moral struggle becomes the film’s center. He’s an actor who doesn’t need to be liked, a quality that serves him well in this part.
Throughout, Reichardt remains fascinatingly distanced as to the ultimate meaning and value of her protagonists’ actions; for a film about ecological radicalism, Night Moves is surprisingly devoid of either moralizing or agitprop. But its ending—which is ambiguous, unexpected, and frightening, the kind of ending you could argue about all night—suggests that the line between righteousness and violence may have been thinner than we thought all along.