Night Moves

The story about three radical environmentalists coming together to execute the most intense protest of their lives: the explosion of a hydroelectric dam.


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  • ★★★★ review by Alice Stoehr on Letterboxd

    I jotted down some notes about this movie while at work, so I figured I might as well transcribe them here:

    This is a bleak movie. A muted, narrow terrorist thriller. It contains exactly two acts of violence, both represented obliquely. But the anticipation of or fallout from these acts permeates every remaining second. These are three characters who are going to do something—who, before long, have done something, the end result of meticulous planning. That fact about them informs their behavior, strains their relationships, controls their lives.

    On its surface, this is a story about activism; it immerses itself in the question of how to change the world for the better. But you'd never mistake it for agitprop or a social problem drama. It actually reminds me more of Bresson's The Devil, Probably, where environmental desolation exacerbates the human variety; where they're both symptoms of living in the same diseased era. The process that Kelly Reichardt documents so methodically—buying the boat, buying the fertilizer, camping near the dam—is the perpetrators' means of hunting for an existential solution. It's a terminally flawed answer to the quandary of "What can we do?" It's a step up from their compatriots' impotent rhetoric, but it's still worse than useless, because the 21st century is a no-win situation.

    Significantly, the film begins after the plan has been designed, so it elides any heated discussion as well as the origins of this terrorist cell. It's only interested in the execution. Long-ish takes, sporadic POV shots, rhythmic and angular back-and-forths: Reichardt and d.p. Christopher Blauvelt build the film with a limited-by-design toolbox that fosters an illusion of objectivity while coiling tightly around the viewer's nerves. Focus pulls indicate the intended objects of audience sympathy. Framing within doors and windows suggests a rectangle-dominated world of gazes and circumscription. (Someone could always be watching, as the grim ending reminds us.)

    Many of these tension-amplifying techniques call Psycho to my mind, though Reichardt's less perversely gleeful than Hitchcock as she submerges her subjects into their collective nightmare. Nor, I should add, is she merely telling a crime thriller for its own gripping sake. She's deeply invested in these rural Oregon spaces: windy forests, mountain roads, rivers, community farms; the exact same landscapes whose exploitation these fugitives are protesting. (Which makes the ending especially ironic: Jesse Eisenberg's Josh, told to disappear, flees not into the woods but into a northern California strip mall.)

    While this may be a "serious" movie (arid, foreboding), I still remember laughing a lot, sometimes nervously. Even the most white-knuckle sequence, with the conspirators lurking in a canoe, waiting for a stranger's car to leave, evoked a couple frustrated chuckles. (I wonder if that wasn't itself partly a nod to Psycho's intermittently sinking car.) Another bit of anxious comedy: the terrorists giving a cold shoulder to a fellow camper who just wants to chat. As in Meek's Cutoff, the characters' most basic aspirations turn out to be pointless to a comic degree.

    So Reichardt does flirt with dark Hitchcockian humor, even if it's as muffled as every other aspect of the movie. (It's as if the movie's aesthetic was "shhh!") Like, hell, those colors—grays, browns, murky greens, like the countryside's clad in camo. This pointed autumnal drabness extends to the characters' wardrobes, which comprise cheap, functional garments like hoodies, hats, and jackets. You might think such dampened visuals would be relaxing, but instead they act as conductors for the mistrust that crackles through the movie like static electricity, threatening to spark a fire. Reichardt and co-writer Jon Raymond pollinate the film with this unease by illustrating the hazards of outlaw life in a grid-mapped world and the double bind hypocrisies of eco-politics.

    Despite the breezy, forested setting, Night Moves is pulled taut by the moral weight resting atop it. These are "good" people spurred to bad action, a contradiction that tears these crusaders up internally. Dakota Fanning's Dena is the most torn: a rich girl who loves the earth, whose open heart shines through Fanning's wide eyes. Eisenberg's the film's fulcrum; he bears a mass of fear in his heavy brow and twitchy eyes. These are not strong people. They're young, sensitive, brooding, idealistic—not tortured, exactly, but stung by the feeling that they have to do something and totally destroyed by the something they end up doing. Like I said: bleak movie.

  • ★★★★ review by Matt Singer on Letterboxd

    This movie is basically divided in two by a crucial event at its midpoint; I'd rate the first half a masterpiece of procedural suspense, and the second half a solid good, so we'll call it a 4-star movie overall. My big beef with the latter part is Eisenberg; he makes a one-character piece a bit too one-note. Eisenberg can play a marvelous motormouth; here he's cast as brooding loner, and not a particularly convincing one; I found his coiled spring of paranoia and anger surprisingly flat. Some of the early scenes, though, are as good as they come. The way Kelly Reichardt conveys information with a glance or a lingering shot is just incredible. Plus, all the HOT FERTILIZER PURCHASING ACTION (which is actually the best sequence in the film).

  • ★★★★★ review by Auteur on Letterboxd

    With Night Moves Kelly Reichardt has solidified her place among my favorite American directors working today. A crossover in any sense of the word, this film is not only her most accessible in terms of story, but also her most significantly evolved work of art, a character study cum film noir that recontextualizes the genre's tropes into a claustrophobic masterpiece (with a welcome air of cynicism), that simultaneously observes and comments on the fine line between progressivism and anarchy. It's also a major indication of the power and control a director has over his/her work, and one of the greatest arguments for having final cut that contemporary cinema has ever seen.

    The film begins quite brilliantly in medias res, as Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard are in the process of pulling off a major eco-terrorist attack, blowing up a dam that is restricting the flow of water and affecting the fish population, we assume in favor of capitalist interests. All three of them are way ahead of the audience, and Reichardt uses this privilege to tease the story slowly out of the situation, while we study the characters.

    Eisenberg's Josh is the loner misfit who works and lives at a farmer's co-op, which I should probably confess a covetousness for, as a type of sublime dream existence I only hope myself in a parallel universe has taken advantage of, but which the realities of life choices and societal demands in reality makes such a thing impossible, though impressionable enough in the film to make the ending a powerhouse. Josh is also one who clearly suppresses his desire to pursue human, more "socially acceptable," needs (things like relationships, etc) to pursue his big shot at "making a difference." Fanning is the bank roller of the operation, who sees any obstacle as black or white when trying to overcome it. And Sarsgaard is the ringleader, the one we assume has done something like this many times before, or is it just a persona he's able to indulge now that he has accomplices to hitch his wagon to? These traits all rise to the surface through small, ingenious moments of disagreement between the three, and the generous moments of quiet reflection and nuance Reichardt affords them, such the magnificent moment when Eisenberg pauses outside a house a few moments longer than it takes for him to hear Fanning and Sarsgaard having sex inside, before he turns and walks out into the woods, seemingly unphased.

    To end this film with the incident, and make it the totality of the story, would be to waste all this precious character development. No, Reichardt has other things in store, unfolding a far more conventional, psychological thriller where paranoia, uncertainty, and rage bubbles up from beneath the surface, compounded by how much we have grown to understand these characters. There is a close-up of Jesse Eisenberg's face in this part of the film that is in the same league as the best work of Hitchcock or Chabrol. That Reichardt is able to pull off such tension after what appears to be yet another studied, observational, character piece (though I will always admit to feeling an unease at the director's Old Joy, bracing myself for some sort of physical, cathartic act), is nothing sort of monumental, and only someone with complete control over their artistic vision every step from mind to silver screen could pull off so singularly.

    Eisenberg has never been better, making his turn as Mark Zuckerberg appear as child's play. He won't be remembered at the Oscars next year, but he should be. Fanning and Sarsgaard are both exceptional as well. Reichardt has always coaxed marvelous performances out of her actors in front of the camera. Behind the camera she has always been resolute and uncompromising. And I haven't seen a better example of it than the final shot of Night Moves. I don't want to give anything away, but suffice it to say it inextricably links poetic justice with an observable truth in our world today about how easy it is to become that which we despise. I can't imagine a big studio producer alive allowing that final shot. It's tricky, and superficially head-scratching, but it unlocks doors to understanding this film. Night Moves is one the best artistic achievements in film this year.

  • ★★★½ review by Jonathan White on Letterboxd

    I’ve been hearing about Night Moves since TIFF 2013. I’ve seen it go by in my stream, I’ve heard my LB pal Len praise it endlessly, but mostly I’ve heard about it from my lovely wife, who reminds me on regular occasions … sometimes multiple times in a day … that we missed it at TIFF because it conflicted with THE ONE SINGLE SOLITARY PICK I’VE EVER REQUESTED IN THE SIX YEARS WE'VE BEEN ATTENDING. It’s not only that, my ill-judged choice knocked out TWO of her picks … this one, and Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy. When we finally saw Enemy on Blu last year, we both thought it was brilliant, so things got even worse for me. Well, finally, today is the day of reckoning. So sure of its quality, we invited the neighbours over.

    I didn’t love it. Lise loved bits of it, and thought it to be ‘perfectly executed’ (except for the parts that weren't perfectly executed) … I think it’s fair to say that our neighbours hated it. Thank the Lord. At last, my neck has been unburdened of that Albatross.

    Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t hate it, and I agree with my significant other that the execution was precise and the photography intimate. While many praise Eisenberg’s performance as the best they’ve seen, I haven’t seen enough of them to make that judgement. Right from the start, he just seemed a bit too broody to me. Yes, I understand that you’d probably be quiet and thoughtful, and maybe a bit scared, when you’re planning an act of terrorism, but I felt Sarsgaard and Fanning brought anxiety and commitment to their performances a little more believably. I also didn’t know that Eisenberg was the organizer until later in the film; I thought it was Fanning. Finally, I’ve only seen Eisenberg in three films; The Squid and the Whale, Social Network, and this. It was a little distracting that he had the same hair in all three. I can understand Social Network, as it made him look a bit like Zuckerberg, but here it was just distracting, as I started thinking about Zuckerberg as an eco-terrorist rather than a privacy terrorist.

    While I quite liked the conviction and consequences arc, and thought the end played out very well, there were a couple of things along the way that bothered me. The first was at the farm supply store, where Fanning looks directly at a security camera. The second was their extensive use of cell phones, even though agreeing not to. Both of these elements lead me to believe, as homeland security is getting pretty darned good at this now, that our characters would be caught, and not that far down the road. To me, this drained much of the tension that we were meant to be left with. The final problem I had with the film was the fate of Fanning’s Dena. Again, I felt it worked against the uncertainty of the ending, and was completely unnecessary and a dalliance into melodrama that felt completely out of place with what had gone before.

    The only other thing I’ve seen from director Kelly Reichardt was her 2008 film Wendy and Lucy; it was brilliant. It was brilliant because of her thoughtful and well-judged pace, and her eye for simple moments that told the story, rather than traditional big plot point markets and pivotal scenes. This type of caring for her characters and their journey through the narrative was on display here as well. I love how well she added more traditional tension devices during the ‘planting’ scene, but left it quiet and simple where another director would call in the orchestra and show the fireworks ( our neighbours hated missing the fireworks ). You can tell that Reichardt had an eye for detail; the use of a Hilti Gun for the attachment was a brilliant stroke in both thinking of how this would be done, and secondarily by not emphasizing the shot at all. Those who’ve never used, or misused, a Hilti gun wouldn’t give it a second through. Those who have, would say ‘of course, that’s ingenious!’

    All of these moments came together to make an enjoyable thriller that doesn't dictate any clear moral message. An admirable accomplishment, but one more frustrating because of what it could have been without the issues I had. If handled slightly better, it could have been perfect. Reichardt is such a talent, so I’m hoping maybe next time.

    The moral of the story. Let Lise pick everything at TIFF from now on. I hate those damn Albatrosses.

  • ★★★★ review by Joe on Letterboxd

    Second movie with this title not to have any Seger on the soundtrack, it's not funny anymore guys, quit it.

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