"Night Moves": A nail-biting procedural explores the "eco-terror" left

Jesse Eisenberg plots an Oregon dam bombing in a dense, brooding indie thriller that resists easy answers

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published May 29, 2014 11:00PM (EDT)

Jesse Eisenberg in "Night Moves"
Jesse Eisenberg in "Night Moves"

Kelly Reichardt’s nervy, gripping indie thriller “Night Moves” drops us right in the middle of what the newspapers and the FBI will no doubt describe as a “terrorist plot.” If you’re looking for the kind of movie that offers plenty of psychological back story on its three central characters, to explain how they got to the point of scheming to blow up a hydroelectric dam in rural Oregon, this isn’t it. Furthermore, there is almost no discussion in “Night Moves” of the ethics of this kind of large-scale sabotage or “eco-terror” (pick your term of art), and we garner only a few hints about what this trio of radicals hopes to accomplish. Is the act they’re planning purely a symbol of resistance, a retribution against a specific power company or an attempt to rouse the stupefied public and spark widespread resistance? You’ll have to decide that for yourself.

Indeed, that sentence can serve as advice for prospective viewers of any of Reichardt’s critic’s-darling films, which include “Meek’s Cutoff,” “Wendy and Lucy” and “Old Joy.” It’s perfectly accurate to refer to “Night Moves” as a thriller, but at the same time I don’t want to lead you too far astray with that word. Shot largely at night and in the evergreen-shaded semi-wilderness of the Pacific Northwest (by ace cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt), this movie has a tense, dense, thickening atmosphere of dread and tension, features both physical and emotional violence, and offers one of Jesse Eisenberg’s best performances, as a protagonist whose psychological state becomes increasingly troubled and troubling.

Indeed, the influence of early Alfred Hitchcock is all over this movie, translated in unusual and original fashion. Compared to Reichardt’s earlier films, this one is pretty much “Die Hard.” Consider that “Meek’s Cutoff,” an enigmatic drama starring Michelle Williams as a pioneer wife on the Oregon Trail, became the proximate cause of a social-media battle among film critics about eating one's "cultural vegetables" and the value of difficult and “boring” art-house cinema. “Night Moves” is not obscurantist in that sense, but it’s still likely to frustrate viewers who want clear answers about what the characters think, what the filmmaker thinks, and what political box (if any) is being checked off here. (There are already IMDB comments describing this movie as a defense of people who hate America, capitalism, civilization and humanity, almost certainly from people who haven’t seen it and never will.)

Filmgoers with long memories may recall that “Night Moves” is not just the title of a Bob Seger classic-rock hit but also of a terrific mid-‘70s Hollywood neo-noir starring Gene Hackman and directed by Arthur Penn. While the worlds of the two movies could hardly be more different, they may have a spiritual connection under the skin. In this case, Night Moves is the name of a power boat, a classic example of the “redneck yacht” genre that Josh (Eisenberg) and his co-conspirator Dena (Dakota Fanning), unconvincingly posing as a young married couple, buy off a bluff suburban dude in Medford, Oregon. The guy’s clearly a bit puzzled about what these hippie-flavored kids want with his well-loved craft; they don’t exactly resemble the bass-fishing demographic, but on the other hand they showed up with a thick stack of $100 bills, and it’s a free country. His life may soon get a lot more interesting, since Josh and Dena hope to load up Night Moves with hundreds of pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, Timothy McVeigh-style, and turn it into a big-ass floating bomb.

Eisenberg might not seem like the natural choice to play a guarded, uncommunicative and nearly monosyllabic “movement” type from organic-veggie land, but he’s been stretching himself recently with interesting results. Of course people who end up living in Oregon communal settlements come from all over, and one way of understanding Josh is that he’s worked hard to cover his New York Jewish roots with local flavor. But we don’t learn anything about his background, and while there are suggestions that he and Dena once had an intimate relationship, its nature isn’t clear: Was Josh just gaming to get hold of a rich girl’s money? When the two descend on Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), the slimy-groovy older activist with shadowy criminal connections and a military past, Josh kind of makes it sound that way. For her part, Dena is eager to prove herself an essential team member beyond her access to Dad’s bank account, whether that means spending private time with Harmon in his trailer or successfully snowing a reluctant feed-store manager into selling her another quarter-ton of fertilizer. (It’s a terrific cameo role for onetime Hollywood hottie James Le Gros, now a chameleonic character actor.)

“Night Moves” isn’t a whodunit (since we know that) or a why-they-did-it (since none of the reasons on offer explain anything). It’s a nail-biting procedural that follows Josh, Dena and Harmon through the execution of their plan, which involves a last-minute near-disaster and several of the most agonizing minutes of screen tension you’ll ever sit through. It’s also about the Dostoevskyan moral and psychological aftermath of an action that seemed to have noble philosophical roots but looks quite different once it is written into reality as another example of the stupid things people do. I won’t say anything about how the Night Moves bombing turns out or what happens later, except that Reichardt and co-writer Jonathan Raymond have a number of nasty surprises in store for the characters and for us.

If some of the plot twists in the final third of “Night Moves” feel overly calculated, the mood never slackens, and Reichardt captures the occluded character of the crunchy-lefty counterculture – where you never quite know who someone is, or what they’ve been up to – with an insider’s eye. In fact, the movie’s most effective bombs go off in dead silence, and have little to do with the dam or the specific fates of Josh, Dena and Harmon. Reichardt’s terrifying and ambiguous final scene recalls the paranoid social vision of Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece “The Conversation,” and suggests that “Night Moves” is a stealth allegory of life in the surveillance state, where naïve idealism is inexorably transformed into murderous cynicism and every attempt to strike a blow for freedom leads only to enslavement.

"Night Moves" is now playing at the Angelika Film Center in New York and the ArcLight Hollywood in Los Angeles. It opens June 6 in Boston, Charlotte, N.C., Dallas, Houston, Miami, Minneapolis, Portland, Ore., San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Calif., Seattle, Washington, D.C., and Austin, Texas; and June 13 in Albuquerque, N.M., Asheville, N.C., Chicago, Cleveland, Columbia, Mo., Denver, Detroit, Eugene, Ore., Fort Collins, Colo., Gainesville, Fla., Kansas City, Las Vegas, Memphis, Nashville, Palm Springs, Calif., Providence, R.I., Raleigh, N.C., Salt Lake City, San Antonio, Santa Fe, N.M., Springfield, Mo., Tucson, Ariz., and Columbus, Ohio, with other cities to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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