Nature's way: from left to right, Eisenberg, Fanning and Sarsgaard.
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Night Moves: an environmental thriller with an intractable problem at its core

Jesse Eisenberg and Dakota Fanning star as eco-warriors in Kelly Reichardt’s tense new film, two radicals who plan to blow up a hydroelectric dam.

Night Moves (15)
dir: Kelly Reichardt

It seems foolhardy of Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff) to call her latest picture Night Moves when there is already another Night Moves that the world loves well enough. In that 1975 thriller, Gene Hackman is invited to see a French New Wave masterpiece. He declines, saying: “I saw a Rohmer film once. It was kinda like watching paint dry.” He might feel that way about this new Night Moves. It is slow and methodical. One of its most suspenseful scenes involves someone purchasing fertiliser. But it is buzzing with dread and it doesn’t have a wasted frame. It’s more like watching blood dry. After five minutes, you forget about the other Night Moves. After ten, you may need reminding that there is air in the cinema. Early on, Dena (Dakota Fanning) tells the jittery Josh (Jesse Eisenberg): “Breathe.” That’s sound advice for the audience, too.

These dowdy-looking Oregonians in their twenties, who wear matching baseball caps yanked down too low, are on their way to see a man about a boat. “We’ve always wanted one!” Dena says when they meet the seller. Then she turns to Josh: “Right, honey?” But he’s not her honey. They are eco-warriors. Dena is affiliated with local radicals and Josh lives on an organic farm. They are about to stage their most ambitious protest yet. “Stage” is the right word: their fixer, Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), calls it a “show”, while someone else dismisses it as “theatre”. A word conspicuous by its absence is “terrorism”.

Their target is a hydroelectric dam. “Killing all the salmon just so you could run your fucking iPod every second of the day,” Josh fumes quietly at no one in particular. The three of them plan to steer the boat towards the dam and use it as a bomb. Long before they head out into the still evening, every element in the movie, from Christopher Blauvelt’s prowling, cautious camerawork to Kent Sparling’s eerie sound design, has warned us that this will not be plain sailing. Chimes reverberate through Jeff Grace’s score like the widening ripples on a lake, or the ramifications of an act of violence.

Night Moves is a stark film about an intractable problem. The question of how to address environmental decline is raised slyly when a well-meaning film-maker screens her short for Dena’s group. It’s too gloomy, she is told: it makes people feel that there’s no point saving the world. Then a stoned voice starts prattling on about “coming together and sharing concerns”. Reichardt, whose camera has been focusing on Josh’s impassive face, does a witty thing: she cuts mid-speech to a shot of a man dancing in a cow suit the next day. Not for the last time, our impression is that Josh, disdainful and impatient, is in charge of the movie.

That would explain why it feels so tense. He’s a bag of nerves with darting eyes. He suppresses in himself most signs of human fallibility. Eisenberg, who barely parts his lips to speak, is good at these roles: his finest work has been as Mark Zuckerberg in David Fincher’s The Social Network. That brutal edit is the equivalent of Josh saying: “Yeah, yeah. Yada, yada.”

Idealism still thrives in Dena. When she talks passionately, Josh scrutinises her with an expression of admiration or disgust. On other occasions, he simply looks confused. Dena also recognises something incomprehensible, even terrifying, in Josh when she witnesses him dealing with the problem of a dead, pregnant doe at the side of the road. Let’s just say he’s no James Herriot.

When their plan hits a snag, Josh becomes more antsy and refrigerated, while Dena unravels. If one of the conundrums in the film is whether it is the heartfelt Dena or the hardened Josh who represents the best approach to activism, the answer is probably a composite of the two. Josh has lost touch with the reasons behind his mission. (Wait for the devastating final shot to see what his world has been reduced to.) The film is crammed with ravishing images of Oregon’s woods and lakes in the autumn sun but it isn’t clear that Josh notices them. The key shot is one of him staring dumbly at his own hands. What have they done? And what are they capable of doing? 

“Night Moves” is released 29 August

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, What the Beatles did for Britain

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The Autumn Statement proved it – we need a real alternative to austerity, now

Theresa May’s Tories have missed their chance to rescue the British economy.

After six wasted years of failed Conservative austerity measures, Philip Hammond had the opportunity last month in the Autumn Statement to change course and put in place the economic policies that would deliver greater prosperity, and make sure it was fairly shared.

Instead, he chose to continue with cuts to public services and in-work benefits while failing to deliver the scale of investment needed to secure future prosperity. The sense of betrayal is palpable.

The headline figures are grim. An analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that real wages will not recover their 2008 levels even after 2020. The Tories are overseeing a lost decade in earnings that is, in the words Paul Johnson, the director of the IFS, “dreadful” and unprecedented in modern British history.

Meanwhile, the Treasury’s own analysis shows the cuts falling hardest on the poorest 30 per cent of the population. The Office for Budget Responsibility has reported that it expects a £122bn worsening in the public finances over the next five years. Of this, less than half – £59bn – is due to the Tories’ shambolic handling of Brexit. Most of the rest is thanks to their mishandling of the domestic economy.


Time to invest

The Tories may think that those people who are “just about managing” are an electoral demographic, but for Labour they are our friends, neighbours and the people we represent. People in all walks of life needed something better from this government, but the Autumn Statement was a betrayal of the hopes that they tried to raise beforehand.

Because the Tories cut when they should have invested, we now have a fundamentally weak economy that is unprepared for the challenges of Brexit. Low investment has meant that instead of installing new machinery, or building the new infrastructure that would support productive high-wage jobs, we have an economy that is more and more dependent on low-productivity, low-paid work. Every hour worked in the US, Germany or France produces on average a third more than an hour of work here.

Labour has different priorities. We will deliver the necessary investment in infrastructure and research funding, and back it up with an industrial strategy that can sustain well-paid, secure jobs in the industries of the future such as renewables. We will fight for Britain’s continued tariff-free access to the single market. We will reverse the tax giveaways to the mega-rich and the giant companies, instead using the money to make sure the NHS and our education system are properly funded. In 2020 we will introduce a real living wage, expected to be £10 an hour, to make sure every job pays a wage you can actually live on. And we will rebuild and transform our economy so no one and no community is left behind.


May’s missing alternative

This week, the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, gave an important speech in which he hit the proverbial nail on the head. He was completely right to point out that societies need to redistribute the gains from trade and technology, and to educate and empower their citizens. We are going through a lost decade of earnings growth, as Carney highlights, and the crisis of productivity will not be solved without major government investment, backed up by an industrial strategy that can deliver growth.

Labour in government is committed to tackling the challenges of rising inequality, low wage growth, and driving up Britain’s productivity growth. But it is becoming clearer each day since Theresa May became Prime Minister that she, like her predecessor, has no credible solutions to the challenges our economy faces.


Crisis in Italy

The Italian people have decisively rejected the changes to their constitution proposed by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, with nearly 60 per cent voting No. The Italian economy has not grown for close to two decades. A succession of governments has attempted to introduce free-market policies, including slashing pensions and undermining rights at work, but these have had little impact.

Renzi wanted extra powers to push through more free-market reforms, but he has now resigned after encountering opposition from across the Italian political spectrum. The absence of growth has left Italian banks with €360bn of loans that are not being repaid. Usually, these debts would be written off, but Italian banks lack the reserves to be able to absorb the losses. They need outside assistance to survive.


Bail in or bail out

The oldest bank in the world, Monte dei Paschi di Siena, needs €5bn before the end of the year if it is to avoid collapse. Renzi had arranged a financing deal but this is now under threat. Under new EU rules, governments are not allowed to bail out banks, like in the 2008 crisis. This is intended to protect taxpayers. Instead, bank investors are supposed to take a loss through a “bail-in”.

Unusually, however, Italian bank investors are not only big financial institutions such as insurance companies, but ordinary households. One-third of all Italian bank bonds are held by households, so a bail-in would hit them hard. And should Italy’s banks fail, the danger is that investors will pull money out of banks across Europe, causing further failures. British banks have been reducing their investments in Italy, but concerned UK regulators have asked recently for details of their exposure.

John McDonnell is the shadow chancellor

John McDonnell is Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington and has been shadow chancellor since September 2015. 

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump