Night Moves (2013)

Genres - Drama, Thriller  |   Sub-Genres - Crime Drama  |   Release Date - May 30, 2014 (USA - Limited)  |   Run Time - 112 min.  |   Countries - United States  |   MPAA Rating - R
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Review by Perry Seibert

The landscape always matters in Kelly Reichardt's movies. From the seemingly welcoming Oregon woods in Wendy and Lucy to the rugged Old West of Meek's Cutoff, her unhurried films have a distinct sense of the outdoors. Night Moves continues this trend, focusing on two young eco-terrorists who strike back against the capitalistic forces that have perverted nature. It's a thriller, but one filtered through Reichardt's singularly deliberate pace.

Jesse Eisenberg stars as Josh, who, along with his friend Dena (Dakota Fanning), begins attending local presentations from environmental-advocacy groups willing to resort to extreme measures to get their point across. They prove themselves to be worthy acolytes, and soon make contact with an older member of the group named Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard); together, the three of them plan to blow up a nearby dam.

When there are unexpected complications to their plot, the three split up and agree not to contact each other. Later, Josh discovers that their activities may not have been as effective as he'd imagined, and he gets word that Dena is struggling with the guilt she feels over their actions.

If you are at all familiar with Reichardt's previous work, Night Moves is unmistakably hers. Along with talented cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, she establishes the majesty of the Pacific Northwest without succumbing to storybook pictures. They make it feel like a real and vivid place, and if the movie were primarily about environmental concerns, the images would do more to convince viewers of the importance of that topic than anything else.

However, Reichardt and her frequent co-screenwriter Jonathan Raymond are more interested in getting inside Josh's head than inside a particular political mind-set; this is a film about living with guilt, not saving the world. To that end, the casting of Jesse Eisenberg makes more sense as the movie goes on. He's an actor who gives off a big-city vibe -- there's something initially incongruous about seeing him in L.L. Bean gear. But as the second half of the film develops into an increasingly unsettling psychological drama, he's a compelling presence whose dead-eyed stare indicates the emotions roiling inside of Josh, even though the character remains outwardly placid.

The biggest disconnect in the movie, however, is the section in which we witness the attack on the dam. It's a straightforward, men-on-a-mission thriller sequence, but Reichardt's style doesn't naturally build tension. Her editing rhythms are so measured that it's hard to overlook how purposefully she's trying to create and maintain suspense. You can appreciate what she's trying to do here, especially in her use of sound during this sequence, but you don't really feel tense.

That holds true for the movie as a whole. Reichardt has once again made something that mixes the majestic with the mundane, telling a small human story that hints at much broader and grander themes without ever addressing them in a direct manner. As a psychological exploration of guilt and paranoia, Night Moves works well enough, but as a thriller, it inevitably disappoints.