There isn’t a careless camera movement or discordant image in the excellent first half of American director Kelly Reichardt’s fifth feature film, Night Moves, a character-driven thriller about three Oregon eco-activists involved in a plot to blow up a dam. Their meetings, casual interactions and preparations for the action are all delineated with minimal exposition, and lots of specific physical textures: the “hey brother” greetings, the scattered moonlight glow, the looming evergreen forests, the hoodies and the worn hiking boots are all there.
The characters, too, seem to rise up as part of the local fauna, and the actors inhabit their parts with effortless naturalism. There’s Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), a humourless loner who works on a co-operative vegetable farm. There’s Dena (Dakota Fanning), a recent college dropout and spa employee from a well-off family back east who’s determined to change the world – she’s cocky, ready to impart information from the college courses she took. Their common motives are obvious enough, spelled out in a documentary film that Dena and Josh watch near the film’s beginning: The planet is being destroyed by multinational companies. Ethics require actions.
Dena and Josh buy a power boat named Night Moves from a middle-aged suburban man. Josh asks to use the washroom and glowers at the modest house, with its middle-class furniture and left-on flat-screen TV. He and Dena attach the boat trailer to their pickup truck and take a long drive into the night. En route, they see a doe lying dead on the road. Josh says the animal is still warm, likely with a live fawn inside her. He pushes the carcass over and we hear it rolling down an incline into a ditch. The thump sounds like foreshadowing.
Dena and Josh drive to meet Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), a former marine who knows how to blow stuff up. Now he’s a shaggy hippie who lives in a trailer in the woods, and wants to save salmon, but hey, he also loves to fish. They drink beer and talk about how big this action is. Harmon, who’s not good with details, needs more fertilizer for explosives.
There’s a long scene where Dena tries to buy ammonium nitrate from a farming co-op, but can’t get past the identity requirements: Post-Oklahoma City bombing, you can’t buy 500 pounds of fertilizer without proper ID. But as she keeps talking, she glances up at the security camera above her head. Tension rises incrementally but surely. The climax of their mission, taking the boat into a park, driving it to the dam and leaving the boat-bomb behind, is the centrepiece, a sequence of exquisite Hitchcockian suspense.
Then Night Moves changes direction. The mission was not a clean success. The movie changes from procedural to psychological. The three characters go their separate ways, promising not to contact each other. The camera stays with Josh, working back on the farm. Co-workers talk about the recent bombing. Josh is taciturn, preoccupied. A phone call comes from Harmon: Dena is freaking out, and there are troubling rumours running through the community.
The minimalism that made the film’s lean first half so muscular and taut becomes a detriment. We don’t have enough momentum to go down those dark corridors of Dostoevskian guilt.
After the successes of her last two features, Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff, Reichardt has earned a reputation as an original observer of outsiders in milieus of rich physical authenticity. Night Moves, including its title, borders on generic. The three characters – naive idealist, loner ideologue, loser trained in destruction – are radical types, not specific to the history of the environmental movement. The caution, too, is disappointingly familiar: You never know how far things will go once you cross the line.