Read two critical perspectives on Night Moves (2013, Kelly Reichardt), from Tim Sika and Dennis Harvey. Night Moves opens in San Francisco on Friday, June 6 at the AMC Metreon.
A Searing, Singular Vision With Staying Power: NIGHT MOVES
by Tim Sika
Eco-activism (or eco-terrorism, depending upon your political sympathies) is at the core of director Kelly Reichardt’s compelling neo-noir thriller Night Moves, part procedural manual, part shocking this-is-what-happens-when-you-haven’t-completely-thought-through-your-best-laid-plans to make a statement about the “disaster that is happening to our farmlands … our oceans, our forests, our wildlife, and our climate.”
As she did in Wendy and Lucy (tackling the invisible poor) Old Joy (taking on themes of reality vs. nostalgia under the guise of a “buddy” movie) and Meek’s Cut-Off , her minimalist western, Reichardt, in this latest splendid character piece and suspense drama (which under a lesser director’s hand could have been just another polemic about how we’re destroying the planet) once again proves not only a wonderful storyteller, visual stylist, and master of the inverse genre and mise-en-scène, but distinctly peerless at establishing a quiet, ruminative and fearless mood, imposing characteristic, literal internal rhythms on an externally beautiful canvas (in this case the natural beauty of Oregon). In fact, upon reflection Night Moves is so good you almost forget that we’ve seen this kind of thing before (most recently in Zal Batmanglij’s somewhat more spasmodic The East ).
Three environmentalists—food co-op farmer Josh (Jesse Eisenberg in what is probably his least verbal, and most effective, role to date); privileged, wealthy society rebel Dena (Dakota Fanning, in a surprising, but ultimately brilliant casting choice) and ex-Marine with-a-record Harmon (the always excellent Peter Sarsgaard) decide to blow up a local dam where salmon are dying and the local eco-system is being threatened. Act One of Night Moves (named for the boat used to hold the explosives which detonate the dam) details the Deed; Act Two—the ramifications of the deed—the doubt, fear, regret, remorse and eventual panic these characters experience.
Reichardt and co-writer Jonathan Raymond’s screenplay (which employs ambiguity and nuance as should be taught in a master’s writing program) captures the conflicting motivations these characters presumably have for breaking the law, while concurrently managing to weave topical environmentalist themes into the picture with no simple or easy answers. And they do so most effectively in a series of beautifully rendered, indelible small moments (like Josh and Dena’s encountering of a dead, pregnant doe along the road, en route to meeting up with Harmon and just prior to exacting their plan) and in pitch perfect lines of dialogue (“Cash … the poor people’s money”).
If there is a downside, the film’s polemics—”We are a culture hooked on profits, production and perpetual growth, but at what cost?” “How long will it be that humanity understands that everything is interconnected?”—arguably, if only momentarily, take you out of the narrative. Perhaps, to some extent, this is unavoidable (but then films like The China Syndrome spring to mind). Still, Night Moves is so content-rich (the wrecking of the environment and humanity’s endless fiddling with the ecosystem-for profit) and dramatizes such interesting themes (the dark side of idealism and its collusion with violence) that said criticisms, in the end, may seem like petulant carping—and irrelevant. For in Night Moves what Reichardt—a singular artist to be reckoned with—has achieved with emblematic directorial élan, is that rarity—a quietly searing, cinematic tone poem replete in detail, visual splendor and all-too-human characters that stays with you—and leaves you thinking—long after the lights in the theater go up.
Tim Sika is the host and producer of Celluloid Dreams: The Movie Show; director of the Camera Cinema Club; DVD reviewer for The Ronn Owens Show (KGO NewsTalk 810 AM San Francisco); and President of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.
When Less Is More: NIGHT MOVES
by Dennis Harvey
It’s rare that a filmmaker as disinclined toward the standard satisfactions of commercial narrative cinema as Kelly Reichardt gets to make a whole career of it. Even world-famous filmic minimalists like Dreyer and Bresson had a hard time finding funders, let alone audiences. Yet Reichardt has slowly built a following over the last two decades—particularly since 2006’s breakthrough Old Joy, since which her movies have acquired name actors and wider distribution.
It would be churlish not to be grateful for the distinctive economy of means she’s brought to the Amerindie arthouse screen. Foreign directors often get a free pass for deploying narrative ambiguity and an austere aesthetic, because we more readily grant that they’re making “Art” and because, hey, who knows what they mean to say anyway? But within our own culture, we tend to consider such tactics “pretentious”—”trying too hard” to be something else, something not quite reg’lar American. Reichardt’s films are unmistakably American and unpretentious even as they pare dramatic conventions to the bone. Hers is a strikingly distinctive voice, and one senses there’s a great deal to it that both she and we have still to discover.
And yet: Surely I can’t be the only one who often sits there during her movies trying to truly appreciate them, as if staring down a plate of artfully arranged organic celery sticks served as dinner. No question, they are good for me. But must they be so unadorned? Sometimes less is just less. There is much to fascinate in Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff, not least Michelle Williams’ flinty vulnerability in both. But would it really have watered down the former’s integrity if we were allowed just a little more intel about its transient heroine? Would the latter’s historical prairie trip to oblivion be any less evocatively bleak if the story itself hadn’t also seemed to be plodding nowhere at times? Why is it guilt-inducing to even suggest these movies occasionally cross a line between meditative and boring?
All this is prelude to the good news: Reichardt’s latest, Night Moves (no relation to the 1975 Arthur Penn thriller) keeps her directorial individuality intact while offering succor to those who’ve been fans-with-reservations, or simply non-fans, before. Suspenseful, provocative and enigmatic, it’s a Kelly Reichardt movie for people who’ve wished they liked Kelly Reichardt movies more.
As is her wont (and that of usual co-scenarist Jonathan Raymond), it presents us with a set of characters whose precise relationship to one another we have to work out ourselves. In fact, there is no preexisting relationship between Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), Dena (Dakota Fanning) and Josh (Jesse Eisenberg)—they’ve assembled to perform the kind of task that requires utmost secrecy, and when it’s accomplished may well never see each other again. The three meet at Harmon’s rural Oregon shack, trying to attract no attention whatsoever as they prepare to commit an act of radical environmentalist protest. (I won’t specify what, though all too many reviews have played spoiler with the film’s big mid-point event.)
They’re here because they’re all on the same page politically. Yet as people, they mix a bit awkwardly. Harmon is older, confident in his skin, an ex-Marine happy living in relative isolation yet no loner; Dena is very young, in the upbeat senses of being idealistic, energetic, and full of fun. They get along together a lot better than either does with Josh, a humorless scold who lives on a communal farm—accepted by its community yet clearly somewhat separate from it—and whose ideas about bettering society can’t quite hide his obvious, neurotic misanthropy.
When the deed they’ve united for is finally done, it has an unforeseen consequence that turns an already serious crime into a full-on manhunt. As planned, the protagonists scatter, leaving no trace they ever knew one another. But the stakes have grown so much higher that now this separation is as tormenting as it is necessary. As each reacts differently to a disastrous turn of events, they all wonder: Can the others be trusted to keep their mouths shut? And if not, what further actions can / should be taken?
Night Moves manages to signal no particular judgment on even a topic as flammable as “eco-terrorism.” It’s not interested so much in whether these characters are right or wrong in a larger sense as how the risks they take reveal character; and how the worst-scenario outcome of those risks breaks down what these characters thought they knew about themselves, and each other. Eventually, panic becomes an enemy more terrifying even than the threat of FBI capture.
Atmospheric and unpredictable, Night Moves is a psychological thriller that withholds just enough pieces of the characters’ psychologies to keep us on edge—we never know what they’re fully capable of. It helps, of course, that Reichardt has three excellent performances shading in the blanks. Sarsgaard is an actor who very seldom hits a wrong note; Fanning is a minor revelation here, since her sometimes overly histrionic child stardom and wobbly teen roles didn’t prepare one for such unforced naturalism.
The movie really belongs to Eisenberg, however. There are those who find him too mannered to be likable in comedies, but no one quibbled with his authority as the driven, dislikable center of The Social Network. Here he plays another character whose insecurities might seem pitiable if they didn’t also constitute a menace—the difference being that while Mark Zuckerberg grew up to be a bazillionaire capitalist, Josh just might become a future Ted Kaczynski, busy making the world a “better place” one diabolically cruel, empathetically deprived act at a time.
Dennis Harvey has been publishing film reviews since the era of the typewriter. He’s a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and currently writes for Variety, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and Fandor.