Night Moves, the outstanding new film by independent filmmaker Kelly Reichardt, opens with shots of a young man named Josh, played by Jesse Eisenberg, looking at a dam as it releases water from a sluice, then follows him wandering in the Oregon woods nearby. He meets up with Dena, played by Dakota Fanning, at a sauna where she works, and then we cut to the community screening of a film about impending environmental disaster. Only gradually do we realize that these two quiet young people are environmental activists, and they’re planning something in secret. They’re planning to blow up the dam.
Tucsonans may automatically think of “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” but this film is far removed from the satiric tone of that Edward Abbey novel. Reichardt, and her regular co-screenwriter Jonathan Raymond, like to explore the plight of loners, people who find themselves outside the mainstream of American society, and their films, which include Wendy & Lucy, and Meek’s Cutoff, are stark meditations on survival and the need for connection. The overt political context of Night Moves, and what might even be considered thriller elements in the film, represent something of a departure, but in fact it only deepens and intensifies Reichart’s focus on the world of the psyche.
Jesse Eisenberg has become somewhat typecast as a sensitive, neurotic nerdy type, even before his starring role in The Social Network. It’s good to see him playing someone much darker—Josh comes off as a sullen and taciturn enigma, motivated by ideology rather than passion. Dakota Fanning, in her first really grown-up part, is good at playing someone who likes to act more mature than she really is. A third conspirator, an ex-Marine named Harmon who is in charge of constructing the detonator, is played by a bearded, almost unrecognizable Peter Sarsgaard, with a tone of genial but guarded cynicism.
In the first half of the film, the camera tends to keep its distance, focusing mostly on process—buying a boat, overcoming a store owner’s reluctance to sell 500 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, all the little details of the operation. But we can’t escape the gravity of the story. Reichardt’s careful and meditative images of the Pacific Northwest’s natural beauty seem fearful and menacing in the light of the incredible risks the characters are taking, and aided by the haunting keyboard music by Jeff Grace on the soundtrack. Even the normally bucolic scenes of life on a communal farm (where Josh lives and works) start to seem alien because of Josh’s increasing paranoia. In formal terms, Reichardt shows how exteriors are always colored by the moods of a film. This is in fact, a major theme, because for all the well-justified anger about the destruction of the environment, and the commitment to do something about it, it is the internal world of human beings, their thoughts and feelings, that have to be taken into account, and that’s exactly what Josh fails to do. The true source of the tension and psychological suspense in Night Moves is not really the plot, but the recognition of our own complicity.