Kelly Reichardt’s latest film, Night Moves, is split informally into two halves. The first – easily the superior part – is a tense thriller about three young eco-activists attempting to pack a boat with explosives and send it into a hydroelectric damn in Oregon. The second section focuses in on one of those environmentalists, Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), and his handling of the action’s dramatic repercussions.
Night Moves is the fifth film by Reichardt, who in 2011 released the excellent Meek’s Cutoff, and by her standards it is very plot-driven. Despite this, Reichardt is still very conscious of not getting bogged down in conventional genre tropes or over-the top-characters – an admirable trait. Her activist trio, played by Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, and the ever-reliable Peter Sarsgaard, aren’t caricatured ideologists as you might except – in fact they’re exceptionally normal, passively going about their plans as to not to be remembered by the area’s many vacationers. The films best scenes are when the three of them are together and planning the action or attempting to get rid of inquisitive passersby.
Though we’re given very little insight into the wider aims or intentions of these three very different people, it doesn’t particularly matter. Reichardt concentrates on sensual immersion and slow movement, helped by a seductive soundtrack by Jeff Grace, who previously worked with Reichardt on Meek’s Cutoff. Stylistically, Night Moves succeeds. Reichardt masterfully uses a soft, tinted pallet to create her set pieces, and, combined with the forested Oregon landscape, these images make for some truly gorgeous scenes.
Night Moves also has a very effective, albeit quiet tone that is maintained consistently throughout. Perhaps the most telling moment of the film is the catalytic act itself, which, without spoiling too much, is completely downplayed and handled very delicately. In the same way Meek’s Cutoff deconstructed the Western through minimalism, the first half of Night Moves reduces the heist thriller to its absolute basics, which proves a very intriguing move.
An hour through, Josh returns to his co-op, living with farmers who deem his work meaningless “theatre”. Prolonged takes and taciturn interactions elevate the angst of Josh, and the usually-talkative Eisenberg does a satisfactory job of capturing his solitude and gradual implosion. Unfortunately, in moving away from the activist trio, Night Moves loses its flair, becoming absorbed in a morality complex that just drags on and renders the first half simply narrative fodder. It’s not so much that the second half is decisively worse than the first, rather, following such a long build up of tension it just seems like it has very different concerns.
Ultimately, in being symmetrically divided up into ‘action’ and ‘consequence’, Night Moves suffers from a lack of focus. At its crux though there is a good film here. Reichardt has created moments of really absorbing drama, redeeming fundamental errors with first-rate acting and an effective style.
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