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Dakota Fanning and Jesse Eisenberg in Night Moves.

It's not uncommon for filmmakers to advise critics to avoid spoiling the endings of their movies. It is slightly strange, however that such an admonishment would come from Kelly Reichardt, a writer-director whose quietly remarkable body of work – including the Toronto Film Critics' Association-award winning Wendy and Lucy (2008) and the richly revisionist Western Meek's Cutoff (2011) doesn't exactly pivot on plot twists.

Typically, Reichardt's films are mood pieces, but her thriller Night Moves offers something new: atmosphere and action. "I want it to remain a film of reveals," says Reichardt near the beginning of an interview at last year's Toronto International Film Festival. "We have to manoeuvre carefully."

The central image in Night Moves is of three characters cautiously navigating unfamiliar waters: The title refers to a motorboat purchased by protagonists Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), Dena (Dakota Fanning) and Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) to aid them in carrying out a clandestine, cloak-and-dagger mission. Their plan is to blow up a massive hydroelectric dam as a statement against the company's ruinous environmental practices, and while it won't do to say how far they get, Reichardt is willing to discuss her motivations for making a film that casts ecological activism in a dim, suspicious light.

"It's not a message movie," she says. "We knew that we weren't going to please people on either [political] side, and for sure not on the left. All of the [activist] groups that I've been aware of during my lifetime, whether it's the Black Panthers, Earth First! or the Weather Underground … they all have a lot of merit and a lot of good ideas, and it's exciting to see people standing up to the powers that be. It's also true that extreme actions tend to isolate people and make them paranoid, and that's the downside."

Paranoia is palpable in Night Moves, which features several extremely suspenseful sequences, but is also more deeply about how it feels to be an outsider. Reichardt has made movies about disillusioned counterculture types before, like her lovely and lyrical 2005 feature Old Joy, but Night Moves turns that movie inside out by focusing on younger, more idealistic characters searching for a sense of community and political purpose instead of ex-hippies lamenting its absence. "[Josh] wants something to happen very fast," says Reichardt. "And he gives up something very nice [to get it]. He's looking for things to be more clear-cut than they are."

Not only does Night Moves have a trickier story than Reichardt's other films, but it also features bigger stars: The casting of Michelle Williams in Wendy and Lucy and Meek's Cutoff seems to have forced open certain industry doors for this congenitally independent director. "It's nice to have access to people who are talented, and who are up for it," she says. "In some ways, these more well-known actors are more up for it than anybody. We're all together in a very deep way, and it's very intimate filmmaking. These [actors] were way down it."

In a separate interview, Fanning acknowledges that she became aware of Reichardt's films because of her admiration for Williams, but that she's also now a huge fan of the woman behind the camera. "To be in any movie that Kelly Reichardt is attached to is a privilege," she says. "[She] deals with such intense things in a very subtle way. It never seems overdone."

Fanning's performance contributes nicely to Night Moves' subtlety. Even as Dena proves to be a bit of a weak link in the group's chain after things turn tense, the actress makes strong, mature choices that leave her earlier work as a doe-eyed child star in the dust. "I think that Dena's experiences have a lot to do with her age," says Fanning, who at 20 is already a young veteran both of acting and talking about her craft. "When you're young, you feel like nothing bad will happen to you. You think that you're invincible. And you do things that are sort of crazy or radical."

It's the latter that Reichardt finally seizes on as a kind of mantra for her movie; she believes that it's an adjective that can mean a lot of different things depending on who's using it and what they're describing. "It's radical that I can drive from New York to Oregon and never see untouched natural territory. It's radical the choices that get imposed on you on the way, how mediocre they are, in terms of food and lodging and shopping. I've been scouting that country [Oregon] since Old Joy, and the changes I've seen are radical. The deforestation is radical. When we're talking about 'radicalism' one could say that BP and companies like that are radical. In their way."

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