The green activists plotting to blow up a dam in Kelly Reichardt’s sublimely nervy new film don’t talk about why they’re doing it. By the time the film catches up with them, the trio has already set their minds on a plan of action. They talk shop here and there, one grousing about all the golf courses being built in a dry climate, another about how the oceans will be dead from pollution by 2048. But there’s no deeper investigation into the why of what they’re about to do or whether they should do it. They just know that the dam, that hulking concrete symbol of humanity domineering nature, must come down. “It wants to come down,” one says dreamily. The introspection comes afterward, with a vengeance.
It makes sense, then, that Jesse Eisenberg is the film’s star. As Josh, Eisenberg delivers another of his anxiety-ridden young males with a diffident exterior but dark currents rumbling visibly inside. Every moment Josh is visibly and thoughtfully miserable about something. He’s as much of a bomb as the ammonium nitrate fertilizer they’re stuffing into the speedboat that Josh and the trio’s bankroll, rich girl turned activist Dena (Dakota Fanning), buy at the start of the film.
Josh and Dena show up at the remote trailer home of Josh’s friend Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard, sly in a predatory fashion), the closest thing to a demolition expert this terrorist cell has. ‘He was trained by the very best,” Josh petulantly reassures Dena. “The United States Marine Corps.” They all adopt the names printed on their new fake drivers’ licenses and nervously eye each other and every stranger they see. Harmon’s suspiciously laissez-faire attitude toward planning ratchets up Josh’s tension, which cracks into high-handed put-downs of Dena, while her initially laid-back air of ironic detachment actually shields a deep well of empathy.
Clean and crackling, Night Moves works as a quiet thriller, shot through with teeth-grinding tension. Reichardt and her frequent co-writer Jonathan Raymond have structured a clean and spare kind of procedural. It tracks Josh, Dena, and Harmon with a serene precision as they go through the planning steps leading up to parking the explosives-packed boat next to the dam and then the aftermath.
As a procedural, the filmmakers aren’t visibly concerned with motive. Reichardt pays closer attention to surroundings, the granular details of the characters’ Pacific Northwest granola surroundings (collective farms, a New Age spa). The air is ripe with the idea that Something Must Be Done; a clip from an amateur documentary shown to other activists in one scene announces, “Let the revolution begin.” (The loose talk of action is arrested in one scene by an organic farmer who snorts at a teenager enraptured with the romance of violent action: “That’s theater.”) Josh says, “People are going to start thinking. They have to,” but it’s with an air of such wistfulness that it’s hard to think he believes it himself. It’s possible the action is its own purpose.
Reichardt has made a career out of spotlighting fringe characters either barely hanging on or just trying to get by without being noticed, and then parsing the tension lines between them. Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, with their monk-like protagonists traveling so lightly they leave no wake, could both have been subtitled: How to Get Lost in America. Meek’s Cutoff was more of a departure, being a nineteenth century period piece, but it still featured characters at loose ends in a country where they didn’t seem to know their place. Home is something possessed by only the minor characters in a Reichardt film. A lot of Night Moves features an increasingly spooked Josh wandering through spaces not his, while Dena and Harmon look only lightly moored in their transient dwellings. It’s as though they can’t even appreciate what’s left of the natural world or the people they are supposedly fighting to protect.