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VENICE – Hardcore admirers of the exquisite minimalism practiced by Kelly Reichardt in films like Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy may approach her fifth feature, Night Moves, with caution. But while this eco-terrorism thriller is considerably more dialogue- and plot-driven than its predecessors, it’s very much of a piece with the distinctive director’s work. After a terrific first hour that crescendos in an extended sequence of quiet yet potent white-knuckle suspense, the film loses some traction in the more challengingly paced second half. But it remains an engrossing reflection on radical violence and its fallout.
Co-scripted with Reichardt’s regular writing collaborator Jon Raymond, Night Moves is anchored by a performance of bristling intensity from an uncharacteristically taciturn Jesse Eisenberg, with excellent support from Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard.
Working with a name cast and more conventional narrative in no way compromises the director’s strengths: The detached yet compassionate gaze; the penetrating access to her characters’ despair; the seemingly casual attention to small but illuminating details; the indelible sense of place; the gracefully controlled camerawork. These assets are applied to a story that, as it develops, more and more starts resembling a 1970s political paranoia thriller.
As the film opens, planning is already at an advanced stage on a plot to blow up a hydroelectric dam in Oregon. The lack of general consensus on an effective course of action among environmentalists is quickly conveyed, before fragments of information come together to disclose the big statement that Josh (Eisenberg) and Dena (Fanning) are preparing to make. “People are going to start thinking,” says Josh with a naivety that comes back to gnaw at him. “Killing all the salmon just so you can run your f***ing iPod every second of your life.”
The principal logistics guy on the operation, Josh lives and works at a sustainable agriculture co-operative. Disillusioned rich college dropout Dena is bankrolling the protest. A former Marine, explosives expert Harmon (Sarsgaard) initially appears a tad gonzo and cavalier, but when complications arise he proves the most clear-headed of the three.
Scenes that might have been dispensed with briskly by other filmmakers instead are given fascinating close scrutiny. These include the purchase of a boat and the prickly negotiation to buy a large quantity of ammonium nitrate fertilizer from a by-the-book factory boss (James Le Gros). Moments of gentle humor also punctuate the tense buildup, notably a shot of a couple watching The Price is Right in their trailer, mere feet away from a spectacular lake; and an amusing encounter with a camper (Lew Temple) eager to strike up a friendly conversation during the trio’s final strategic huddle.
All this patiently paves the way for nail-biting coverage of the plan’s execution. Accompanied by the darkening strains of composer Jeff Grace’s score, the almost Hitchcockian sequence is made even more unsettling by the smart decision to confirm the mission’s completion only via the distant noise of the explosion.
The film switches gears from procedural to psychological drama in the aftermath as the co-conspirators separate and return to their normal lives, agreeing to avoid contact until things cool off. But when news reports reveal that a camper who was sleeping downstream from the dam has gone missing, Dena freaks, making Harmon and Josh increasingly nervous. She even develops a nasty case of hives, a physical manifestation of her remorse.
Reichardt perhaps spends too much time intimately observing Josh through the evolution of his doubt, guilt and panic, yielding patches where the director’s unhurried approach becomes frustrating. And the script fails to make a convincing case for the drastic action that provides the chilling climax.
But even if it’s more persuasive in setup than resolution, Night Moves raises stimulating questions about the value and cost of any destructive act, the delusions of unfocused idealism, and the ways a single unforeseen consequence can nullify intent. And Reichardt ends on a note of lingering ambiguity that feels just right.
The principal actors all make sharp impressions as characters that by design are more interesting than likable, and often downright smug until doused in cold reality. But the film’s ever-present fourth protagonist is the Oregon landscape, a significant assist in a story rooted in environmental angst. Pine-covered mountains, bursts of early-fall foliage, placid bodies of water and lush farmlands are captured by Christopher Blauvelt’s camera in crisp light and hypnotic slow pans, as are areas of scorched earth and denuded forest. The effect is both beautiful and disturbing.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition; also in Toronto festival)
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard, Alia Shawkat, Logan Miller, Kai Lennox, Katherine Waterston, James Le Gros
Production companies: Maybach Film Productions, RT Features, Filmscience
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Screenwriters: Jon Raymond, Kelly Reichardt
Producers: Neil Kopp, Anish Savjani, Chris Maybach, Saemi Kim, Rodrigo Teixeira
Executive producers: Saerom Kim, Lourenco Sant’Anna, Alejandro De Leon, Todd Haynes, Larry Fessenden
Director of photography: Christopher Blauvelt
Production designer: Elliott Hostetter
Music: Jeff Grace
Editor: Kelly Reichardt
Costume designer: Vicki Farrell
Sales: The Match Factory/UTA
No rating, 112 minutes.
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