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26 August 2014updated 14 Sep 2021 3:21pm

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.

By Ryan Gilbey

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.

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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