Mark Reviews Movies

Night Moves (2014)


3 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Kelly Reichardt

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard, Alia Shawkat, Logan Miller, Kai Lennox, Katherine Waterston, James Le Gros

MPAA Rating: R (for some language and nudity)

Running Time: 1:52

Release Date: 5/30/14 (limited); 6/13/14 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | June 12, 2014

There's a moment in Night Moves just before the film's turning point in which one of the participants in a plot to blow up a dam has to return to the bomb he has armed minutes ago. There's trouble with the plan, and the thought is to stop the ticking clock that will set off the device—maybe for a minute or two until the obstacle has removed itself or perhaps indefinitely. Instead, he stares at his creation of destruction.

In the film's sense of time, this goes on for a few minutes; for us, it's less than that. One imagines that it's just short of an eternity for the man who has become hypnotized by the red glow of the digital timer counting down the seconds, then the minutes, before it erupts in fire, water, and the stone of the dam.

He doesn't lift a finger to stop it. He just looks straight at it. At first, we think he has realized that he doesn't know how to stop the thing he's made. It would make sense, given how many times he has been wrong about his part of the plan. Even if he wanted to stop it, he couldn't.

That, of course, isn't accurate, as we come to learn in the second half of co-writer/director Kelly Reichardt's chilling film that dissects the mentality of fanaticism. He could stop the bomb, but he doesn't want to. It's the culmination, really, of a series of moments in which any of these people could stop the gears in motion but choose to allow them to keep turning. Fanatics, such as the ones of the environmentalist cloth that are presented here, like to talk a good game about their beliefs, but Reichardt and co-screenwriter Jonathan Raymond know better than to concentrate on the attempts of such people to put a rational face on the irrational. Fanaticism serves no end other than itself.

The characters here purport to be on a mission—to put on a "show," as one of them calls it—to save the planet or, if not that, at least a very, very small slice of it. After all, as a documentary about the ravages human enterprise has on the environment sums it up, "Everything is interconnected." Save this patch of river in the Pacific Northwest, and one saves the world. They don't stop to think about that statement in regards to their plan: Blow up a dam, and what is the result?

What becomes clear by the time the film makes its halfway-point turn is that these three people either don't know as much as they like to believe they do or don't care as much about the issue with which they've associated themselves. Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), the de facto leader of the group, spends most of the preparation keeping the other two on point with the details of the plan. Once it's in motion, he's pretty much a silent partner, staring off into a distance that goes far beyond what he sees of the natural world. In these moments, he's not observing things, such as the dead trees rising out of an unnatural pool of water created by the reservoir; he's looking through them.

What he doesn't do, though, is talk about the Cause. That's left to Dena (Dakota Fanning), who has financed other "shows" with money from an oblivious "rich daddy" but never one as major as this one. After she has watched the aforementioned documentary, she blows off those who say that the movie's focus on the worst would leave people feeling hopeless, as if it's too late to do anything (On a side note, this is some pointed criticism that unfortunately describes far too many works of a certain brand of activist filmmaker); it's a rallying cry for her.

Even she doesn't talk about the Cause much, even though she is the closest this trio has to a True Believer. When she does, it's spouting off information she learned from one class in college—a class she took just before dropping out of school because the environment was too "phony." That belief about the institution doesn't stop her from grasping to the evidence she wanted to hear. That's neither the first nor last display of hypocrisy any one of these three show, either.

The third is Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), the man on location, who should have been preparing the particulars of the mission. Instead, Josh and Dena find themselves almost completely unprepared for the task at hand. They've bought a boat, which will house the bomb, but Harmon has failed to obtain the necessary amount of fertilizer to make the explosive. He insists no one in the area knows him, but there's a man at restaurant, speaking to him on a first-name basis.

Reichardt builds the tension in the first half of the film through these rather ordinary observations and situations that could have terrible ramifications for the group's plan. We're at a distance from them, obviously, because of their goal, but the suspense aimed at whether they will succeed (The climax is a scene in which Dena tries to convince a store owner to sell her the necessary fertilizer without proper identification and without arousing suspicion) or decide to stop soon shifts to fearing what will happen if the former occurs.

It's a fascinating, clinical procedural of each successive step in achieving their aim, and that tone and approach continue through the film's second half, which shifts focus almost exclusively to Josh and the psychological implications of committing a crime with more devastating results than originally planned. Eisenberg's performance is crucial in escalating the feeling of paranoia (Every car door that shuts is a potential cop coming to take him away; every staring face is someone ready to call him out on his crimes). More importantly, it's unnervingly effective in portraying the reality behind those eyes that previously seemed to be gazing through the world around him.

What's on the other side of those eyes becomes clearer as we start to realize that Reichardt and Raymond are making a haunting statement about morality by picking apart the key difference between those who feel guilty and those whose primary concern is a fear of being caught. It's one of conscience. Night Moves stares, unflinching, at an amoral bomb ready to blow, and there's nothing to be done to stop it.

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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