Kelly Reichardt never seems too concerned with entertaining her audience. Her past three films moved at a deliberate pace – her critics might say they’re glacial – and her latest Night Moves is no different. There are long takes where not much happens, except for obtuse symbolism in the landscapes, and Reichardt expects us to think about what her characters might be thinking. She does not make it easy: the script has natural-sounding dialogue that does not over-explain things, and all the character development is low-key. Still, Night Moves is an intriguing character study, one that demonstrates how the combination of extreme isolation and zealotry can be corrosive.
Set in the outskirts of the Pacific Northwest, a place where people can escape civilization but not pleasantries, Night Moves primarily follows Josh (Jesse Eisenberg). He’s a loner who does not talk much, and when the film opens he’s buying a boat with Dena (Dakota Fanning). Josh wanders around the boat in an off-putting way, while Dena exchanges small-talk with its owner. Soon they hitch the boat to their truck, and drive into the mountains where they meet Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), who lives in a trailer there. While they never use the word, these three are environmental terrorists, and they plan to use to the boat to blow up a nearby dam. They get the bomb ready, set the detonator, and deal with its aftermath in different ways.
The main characters may be terrorists, but Reichardt is not exactly inspired by 24 or Homeland. She grounds the plot in low-key realism, full of crisp naturally-lit cinematography, and her idea of suspense is too never reveal too much. There’s a long early sequence where Dena attempts to buy 500 pounds of fertilizer, and she must improvise when the store owner gives her a hard time. No matter whether they’re going for a nature walk or hatching a sinister plan, Reichardt always shoots from the perspective of her characters, and the effect can be maddening (larges sections unfolds without music, but eventually a minimalist post-rock score emerges). There’s a key sequence where Josh and the others stare silently at a car, and we have as much visual information as they do. Night Moves never quite becomes a thriller, except for one scene that’s devastating because it unfolds in such an awkward way. I can see how this sounds boring, but there is genuine insight in between these periods of inactivity.
The three main characters may be politically-minded, but they only discuss their beliefs in shorthand. Their primary concern is trust, and whether the other two can finish the job. The closest Josh ever gets to explaining himself is an early scene where he hopes that the bombing will finally get ordinary people to think. He has no delusions he’s a revolutionary, in other words, and what he fights against is apathy. Reichardt takes Josh’s ideals and put them into a context that’s darkly funny: he goes back to his farm the morning after the attack, and his colleagues speak about it with bored ambivalence. By the time someone dismisses the significance of the dam with an afterthought, Josh realizes he’s the butt of his own joke.
While the fist half of Night Moves isolates the three main characters and show just how simple it is to hatch their plan, the second half deals with disillusionment, conscience, and despair. Josh cannot begin to talk about his feelings to anyone – he’s too cool for his accomplices, and speaking to anyone else would be a confession – so Eisenberg raises the tension by pinching his voice, and making his eyes more furtive. There’s a single tear that happens toward the end of the film, and what it implies is both heartbreaking and pathetic. With this role, Eisenberg proves that no one else is better at understated neurotic intelligence.
Like The East, the unfairly-forgotten 2013 thriller that’s also about a group of disillusioned eco-terrorists, there is a reliance on familiar archetypes. Sarsgaard is the enigmatic leader (Alexander Skarsgård played that type in The East, incidentally), while Fanning and Ellen Page, respectively, are the bitter rich kids who resent their privilege. The East is more about how ideologies can shift, and how easily the personal and political can intertwine. On one hand, Night Moves is less ambitious than that. Reichardt drills down into these people, to the point where we associate their ideology with a personality flaw. But what makes Night Moves compelling, even ambitious, is how Reichardt arrives at her conclusions through cinematic austerity.