If we say that most American cinema is geared towards surety and security – engendering a reassuring sense that both protagonist and viewer know exactly where they are – then the writer-director Kelly Reichardt has gone against the flow in persistently pursuing characters who, whether by intention or accident, find themselves utterly lost.
Consider the lovers on the run in her 1994 debut River of Grass; the heroine of Wendy and Lucy, tracking down her errant pooch; the party of settlers in 2010’s Meek’s Cutoff. Reichardt’s films are diversions in the literal sense, charting long walks or other journeys that don’t conclude where their instigators were hoping, or any onlookers might expect.
Her latest Night Moves follows a couple of kids drifting off-course in the wilds outside Oregon – a location presented here as a frontier on which a number of cultural and environmental battles are still being fought. Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) and Dena (Dakota Fanning) are young activists casting around for a project into which to channel themselves; they elect to go big by blowing up a hydroelectric dam, thereby sparing all the salmon being chewed up in the demand for lower energy bills.
To this end, they’ve sought out the guidance of Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), an older activist whose Marine background confers a kind of authority upon him. Josh and Dena are happy to go along with his suggestions, though the Harmon we see is a man of somewhat shifty and shambling demeanour, hardly the type you’d want to be holding the detonator.
That shift in perspective – from what the earnest, blinkered Josh and Dena see to what we spot – is crucial here. Night Moves could have been a bold, brash mission-movie: the kids equip themselves with a boat (from which the film takes its title) and begin stuffing it with bags of ammonium-nitrate fertiliser, in anticipation of a big bang. Yet our confidence in these so-called heroes are undermined from the off, and the result is a compellingly hushed and panicky drama, entirely in tune with the vacillations of this uncertain moment.
Reichardt casts her players, already huddling under face-shielding baseball caps, into shadow, and proves sensitive to the notes of doubt and suspicion hanging in the air. Harmon’s belated revelation of an earlier prison stretch hardly settles the nerves; as we were alongside those heading into Meek’s Cutoff, we grow increasingly uncertain where we’re heading.
Early scenes trade on Eisenberg and Fanning’s reps as bright, committed kids, but Josh and Dena really are just kids – vulnerable, suggestible, impulsive, destructive. They may believe they’re doing the right thing, but then so do most jihadists. Reichardt is at all points careful to frame these outliers in relation to other citizens, not only to build tension (every interaction throws up another witness, increases the chances of this party getting busted) but to underline the sense of a world beyond the activists’ bubble.
When the mission inevitably goes awry, we follow the leads away from the crime scene and back to the lives that have previously been withheld from us. There, they’re observed waiting anxiously for these moves to play themselves out; they wonder what their co-conspirators are up to, worry away at themselves, and slowly sink beneath the weight of what they’ve done – and what they’ve failed to achieve. If the first half shows these youngsters toying with the idea of isolation, the second hits them – hard – with the real thing.
The doomy paranoia that sets in links Reichardt’s film to its 1970s namesake, but it’s filtered through a more modern sensibility: the surveillance equipment here isn’t hidden, but everywhere one looks, busily recording every betraying gesture. Reichardt’s unconventional perambulations have yielded some of recent American cinema’s most rewarding field data, and here she proves it’s possible to pitch a gripping thriller in the lowest possible key: Night Moves builds its remarkably disquieting mood from a mere handful of flinches and twitches.
(MovieMail, August 2014)
Night Moves screens on Channel 4 tonight at 1.30am.