Night Moves (2014)

Posted by Joel Copling on June 10, 2014

The thriller elements within co-writer/director/editor Kelly Reichardt's intoxicating "Night Moves" are of such a slow burn that it's almost disconcerting, but the suspense is here in waves. It exists in the very fabric of the narrative, which slowly moves beyond an environmentalist polemic into a quietly nervy study of the human condition. Through a central trio of performances that commands the screen as a desperate situation becomes hopeless, "Night Moves," well, moves with a Hitchcockian serenity. The bomb is always under the table, and the beauty of Reichardt's script (written with Jonathan Raymond) is that there is little assurance of it ever going off.

Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) and Dena (Dakota Fanning) are activists for an organization that seems to condone militant action toward those who put consumerism before the environment. This is no less obvious than when they team up with Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), an ex-Marine for the mission of blowing up the Green River Dam with 500 pounds of ammonium nitrate. The sequence in which they do just that is kept at such a fever pitch by Reichardt that a viewer's disposition as profusely sweating and teetering on the edge of his or her seat would not be out of the question. The plan goes off with a devastating hitch: A camper goes missing, and later, his body is found floating in the water.

As Josh laments, nature has been sacrificed among those who pay no attention to it for the luxury of being able to power their iPods. Josh's demeanor is constantly downtrodden. He has demons in his past, clear trust issues with anyone who crosses his path, and a passion for environmentalism that seems to surpass even a passion for his own life. That emotional wall, so protective of probable outbursts that never come, slowly breaks down over the course of the film's third act, and Eisenberg's magnetic performance never lets the despair become one-note. The last scene is particularly suggestive of the desire--nay, the need--to break away, and the actor plays it so quietly that the element of implosion is almost entirely buried.

Dena, meanwhile, is the more emotionally wrecked of the two. Fanning is particularly effective in the showier role of the main two. She showcases this from the beginning, with her nervously energetic manner of speaking in compartmentalized spurts of sarcasm (Note her interaction with the retailer, played by James Le Gros, who sells her the ammonium nitrate in spite of his policies). She slowly unravels after the full scope of their actions makes itself known, a stress-induced rash spreading from her right arm to her chest and face. For his part, Harmon remains relatively calm throughout the picture before more or less disappearing for the entire third act (This is understandable, considering the focus shifts solely onto Josh), but Sarsgaard effortlessly plays the role as intriguingly melancholy.

The trio parts company after the tragic incident takes place. The people with whom Josh stays are privy before long to whatever he involved himself in; Surprise (Alia Shawkat) wonders where Dena's got to and Sean (Kai Lennox) warns Josh that he can no longer allow them to keep his secrets. The entire final act of "Night Moves" works to wear down each character's certainty in his or her part of the plan. The screenplay veers away from the environmentalist angle (which is not particularly anything new following 2013's altogether different "The East") early enough to work as a chilling but never chilly thriller of the human condition that casts its spell effectively enough to stick to the brain.

Film Information

Jesse Eisenberg (Josh), Dakota Fanning (Dena), Peter Sarsgaard (Harmon), Alia Shawkat (Surprise), Logan Miller (Dylan), Kai Lennox (Sean), Katherine Waterston (Anne), James Le Gros (Feed Factory Clerk), Traber Charles Burns (Felix), Autumn Nidalmia (Mable), Barry Del Sherman (Corser), Matt Malloy (Boat Owner), Lew Temple (Wandering Camper).

Directed by Kelly Reichardt and written by Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond.

Rated R (language, nudity).

112 minutes.

Released in select cities on May 30, 2014.