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

Screenshot of Black Mirror's Fifteen Million Merits.
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How likely are the plots of each Black Mirror episode to happen?

As the third series is on its way, how realistic is each instalment so far of the techno-dystopian drama? We rate the plausibility of every episode.

What if horses could vote? What if wars were fought using Snapchat? What if eggs were cyber?

Just some of the questions that presumably won’t be answered in the new series of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series Black Mirror, somewhere between The Twilight Zone with an app and The Thick Of It on acid.

A typical instalment takes an aspect of modern technology, politics, or life in general and pushes it a few steps into the future – but just how plausible has each episode been so far?

Series 1 (2011)

Episode 1: The National Anthem

Premise: A member of the Royal Family is kidnapped and will only be released unharmed if the Prime Minister agrees to have sexual intercourse with a pig on live television.

Instead of predicting the future, Black Mirror’s first episode unwittingly managed to foreshadow an allegation about the past: Charlie Brooker says at the time he was unaware of the story surrounding David Cameron and a pig-based activity that occurred at Oxford university. But there’s absolutely no evidence that the Cameron story is true, and real political kidnappings tend to have rather more prosaic goals. On the other hand, it’s hard to say that something akin to the events portrayed could NEVER happen.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Episode 2: Fifteen Million Merits

Premise: Sometime in the future, most of the population is forced to earn money by pedalling bikes to generate electricity, while constantly surrounded by unskippable adverts. The only hope of escape is winning an X-Factor-style game show.

In 2012, a Brazilian prison announced an innovative method of combating overcrowding. Prisoners were given the option to spend some of their time on electricity-producing bikes; for every 16 hours they spent on the bike, a day would be knocked off their sentence.

The first step to bicycle-dystopia? Probably not. The amount of electricity a human body can produce through pedalling (or any other way, for that matter) is pretty negligible, especially when you take account of the cost of the food you’d have to eat to have enough energy to pedal all day. Maybe the bike thing is a sort of metaphor. Who can say?

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Episode 3: The Entire History of You

Premise: Everyone has a device implanted in their heads that records everything that happens to them and allows them to replay those recordings at will.

Google Glasses with a built-in camera didn’t work out, because no one wanted to walk around looking like a creepy berk. But the less visibly creepy version is coming; Samsung patented “smart” contact lenses with a built-in camera earlier this year.

And there are already social networks and even specialised apps that are packaging up slices of our online past and yelling them at us regardless of whether we even want them: Four years ago you took this video of a duck! Remember when you became Facebook friends with that guy from your old work who got fired for stealing paper? Look at this photo of the very last time you experienced true happiness!

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 5

Series 2 (2013)

Episode 1: Be Right Back

Premise: A new service is created that enables an artificial “resurrection” of the dead via their social media posts and email. You can even connect it to a robot, which you can then kiss.

Last year, Eugenia Kuyda, an AI entrepreneur, was grieving for her best friend and hit upon the idea of feeding his old text messages into one of her company’s neural network-based chat bots, so that she and others could, in a way, continue to talk to him. Reaction to this was, unsurprisingly, mixed – this very episode was cited by those who were disturbed by the tribute. Even the robot bit might not be that far off, if that bloke who made the creepy Scarlett Johansson android has anything to say about it.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Episode 2: White Bear

Premise: A combination of mind-wiping technology and an elaborately staged series of fake events are used to punish criminals by repeatedly giving them an experience that will make them feel like their own victims did.

There is some evidence that it could be possible to selectively erase memories using a combination of drugs and other therapies, but would this ever be used as part of a bizarre criminal punishment? Well, this kind of “fit the crime” penalty is not totally unheard of – judges in America have been to known to force slum landlords to live in their own rental properties, for example. But, as presented here, it seems a bit elaborate and expensive to work at any kind of scale.

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Episode 3: The Waldo Moment

Premise: A cartoon bear stands as an MP.

This just couldn’t happen, without major and deeply unlikely changes to UK election law. Possibly the closest literal parallel in the UK was when Hartlepool FC’s mascot H'Angus the Monkey stood for, and was elected, mayor – although the bloke inside, Stuart Drummond, ran under his own name and immediately disassociated himself from the H’Angus brand to become a serious and fairly popular mayor.

There are no other parallels with grotesque politicians who may as well be cartoon characters getting close to high political office. None.

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Christmas special (2015)

Episode: White Christmas

Premise 1: Everyone has a device implanted in their eyes that gives them constant internet access. One application of this is to secretly get live dating/pick-up artistry advice.

As with “The Entire History of You”, there’s nothing particularly unfeasible about the underlying technology here. There’s already an app called Relationup that offers live chat with “relationship advisers” who can help you get through a date; another called Jyst claims to have solved the problem by allowing users to get romantic advice from a community of anonymous users. Or you could, you know, just smile and ask them about themselves.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Premise 2: Human personalities can be copied into electronic devices. These copies then have their spirits crushed and are forced to become the ultimate personalised version of Siri, running your life to your exact tastes.

The Blue Brain Project research group last year announced they’d modelled a small bit of rat brain as a stepping stone to a full simulation of the human brain, so, we’re getting there.

But even if it is theoretically possible, using an entire human personality to make sure your toast is always the right shade of brown seems like overkill. What about the risk of leaving your life in the hands of a severely traumatised version of yourself? What if that bathwater at “just the right” temperature turns out to be scalding hot because the digital you didn’t crack in quite the right way?

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Premise 3: There’s a real-life equivalent of a social media block: once blocked, you can’t see or hear the person who has blocked you. This can also be used as a criminal punishment and people classed as sex offenders are automatically blocked by everyone.

Again, the technology involved is not outrageous. But even if you have not worried about the direct effect of such a powerful form of social isolation on the mental health of criminals, letting them wander around freely in this state is likely to have fairly unfortunate consequences, sooner or later. It’s almost as if it’s just a powerful image to end a TV drama on, rather than a feasible policy suggestion.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Series 3 of Black Mirror is out on Friday 21 October on Netflix.