NIGHT MOVES. Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard. Directed by Kelly Reichardt. 112 minutes. Rated M (Violence and coarse language).
‘Night Moves’ is co-writer and director Kelly Reichardt’s fifth film, and her mature talent behind the camera is largely evident in the result. Well-acted and tensely mounted, this is a thriller devoid of action, but it is this absence which sets it apart.
Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) and Dena (Dakota Fanning) are acquaintances and dedicated environmentalists. The opening scenes follow them looking at a dam together, before buying a second hand boat (the name of which is also the film’s title). Heading out of town with their purchase, they meet with Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), who gives them each fake identities and documentation. It is evident that they are planning something illegal, and their exact scheme is soon clear; they are creating a fertiliser-based explosive to destroy the dam wall.
Harmon alerts them that they will need more nitrogen fertiliser, so they head into town to buy it in bulk. Dena is sent in and must sidestep security measures to be able to purchase a suspiciously large 500 pounds of a controlled substance. It is in moments like this that Reichardt’s poise is best displayed. Unbearably tense set-ups are derived from the simplest scenarios, such as buying fertiliser, and later when a hiker stumbles across their rest stop on the river bank. The script, co-written with Jonathan Raymond, makes good use of its organic, natural feel – conversations never feel forced or expositional, and decision making is made to feel collaborative. Despite some clumsy staging in the film’s climax, Reichardt is still a formidable talent, and this slots well into her catalogue of well-received independent features.
The trio load the boat with the explosives and take off towards the dam, setting the bomb’s timer and paddling off late at night. It is no spoiler to acknowledge that their plot is a success, as it is the personal and wider results of their actions that drive the narrative into its third act. They have meticulously covered their tracks and vowed not to contact each other to avoid attention, but as stresses pile up, this resolution will be far more difficult to keep than previously hoped.
As Josh, Jesse Eisenberg is quiet and reflective, constantly tense; the very picture of paranoia throughout. His gawky screen presence has been used in the past to endear his characters, but here it feels more alien, more detached, and it suits the role, particularly when the full impact of their deeds become apparent. Dakota Fanning has grown up considerably since the last film I saw her in, and her talent has matured too. She and Sarsgaard too are lighter than Eisenberg, so their descent into his neuroses are more pronounced. Her arc is tragic, as the young idealist without a full grasp of what she is getting herself into. Peter Sarsgaard plays his ex-Marine character with a surface of humour, underpinned by strength of personality which marks him as more the natural leader than Josh.
Christopher Blauvelt’s cinematography is one of the film’s best assets. Predominantly mounted cameras panning to show the action occasionally break free and engage other moves with great results, particularly a shot which follows a young boy riding down a dirt trail on a bicycle. The segments filmed on real river locations are also stunning, and the team get the most out of their spectacular settings.
The film has an interesting environmental message; its protagonists are clearly fanatics willing to do whatever it takes, but other characters conflict this with reasonable justifications. Being set in a community composed of independent livers and independent thinkers, there is no definitive answer given, but it certainly makes clear that there is a need for some action.
‘Night Moves’ never shows its audience the dam explosion which would be a million dollar centrepiece in a likely inferior studio thriller. This is indicative of its restraint and character based concerns, and further emblematic of what ultimately endeared the film to this reviewer.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out September 11.