The Films of 2014: Night Moves

The first hour of Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves, in which three environmental activists plot to blow up a hydroelectric dam under cover of darkness, is some of the best filmmaking I’ve seen this year: it’s punctuated by moments of nearly unbearable tension, and yet it also unfolds with an eerie, languid calm.  Played by Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, and Peter Sarsgaard, the film’s conspirators are cagey and quiet.  They exchange only a handful of words and know one other only by aliases.  As they head toward their goal, the film’s atmosphere thickens; its serene landscapes become tinged with menace.  As with its characters, the film’s intensity roils just beneath a placid surface. 

It’s the work of a masterful director in collaboration with three keenly perceptive actors.  Reichardt’s previous two films, Wendy and Lucy (2008) and the superb Meek’s Cutoff (2011), were similarly tense in unexpected ways; her films aren’t marketed as thrillers, and yet in all of them she generates suspense by plunking already desperate characters into extraordinarily dire situations.  And she’s an expert at letting that suspense swell, drawing out moments to lengths that are sometimes uncomfortable.  Night Moves is more conventionally edited and less aggressively minimalist than her earlier films, though that’s not necessarily a complaint—at least not in the first half of the film, when the plotting is solid.  The interplay between the three lead actors also contributes to the film’s sense of claustrophobia, as the bristly personalities of their characters rub up against one another in curious ways.  Eisenberg, always a serious, nervy actor, is in top form here, and Sarsgaard delivers a performance that is also fine, though not much of a stretch (he’s made a career out of playing shady types).  I was more surprised by Fanning, the one-time child star of sentimental comedy-dramas like I Am Sam, here playing a haunted-looking radical who has defected from a rich family.  There’s a solidity and a rawness to the performance that one might not expect from the looks of her willowy frame or the sound of her high, soft voice.  Like her younger sister Elle—who, in films like Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, has proven herself to be an impressive actor in her own right—she’s blessed with a naturalness that plays beautifully onscreen.       

What’s good about Night Moves is so good that I wish I could overlook its more glaring flaws, all of which come in its second half, as Reichardt and her co-screenwriter Jonathan Raymond proceed to depict the fallout from that fateful night at the dam.  As the characters’ nerves begin to fray, so do the filmmakers’ ability to handle this material.  The plot devolves into the stuff of cliché, and the cutting, which had previously been so controlled, begins to feel sloppy.  The film’s relationship to its subject matter also remains unclear.  While I commend Reichardt’s unwillingness to champion or condemn her characters’ actions (or environmentalism more generally), at times she appears to be straining to make observations about “nature” and “environment” that feel facile.  It’s a shame that she doesn’t quite pull off what might have been an impeccable dramatic thriller.  Night Moves is one half of a masterpiece. 

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