I hesitate to call Kelly Reichardt's excellently staged Night Moves haunting. It's not surreal and not in the least bit hallucinatory. It is a film that has stuck with me like few others since screening it as part of SIFF this year, and I think as important a film as 2014 is likely to churn out. A compelling slow burn that expertly builds tension, and keeps you in its vice-like grip for the duration.
Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, and Peter Sarsgaard are the stars here. Quiet recluses that come together in light of a shared cause: Radical activism. Eisenberg's Josh is a solemn worker on a small produce farm, living in a yurt and eschewing organic living. Fanning plays Dee (Dena) who we know less about. She works and lives in a healing spa, clearly influenced by Eastern culture and a zen within the environment. Sarsgaard's Harmon is a hermit in a trailer, ex-military and one with the outdoors, reveling in the seclusion of the natural world. The three sharing a discontent with the growing reliance on hydro-electric power and the imbalance introduced by dams spanning the lengths of Oregon's rivers.
Convinced that radical action is the only action worth taking, the three conspire to detonate one of the many dams. Carrying through with their intention, the film documents the group as they unravel. Not just from the attempt to hide their involvement, but also due to the after-effects of their deed and the guilt they carry as a result. Fanning and Eisenberg especially are exceptional here, masters of internalizing character work. Putting on grim faces and swallowing any hint at extroversion. Some may argue that they don't play against type, and while I might agree, it's a niche in which they both excel. Sarsgaard is the exception of the group. The veteran that has likely seen and done worse while deployed abroad. His nuances, affectations, mannerisms, and demeanor have a candor that goes against the subtleties of his co-conspirators. As a group, the three are always compelling.
What I greatly appreciate about Night Moves, is how Kelly Reichardt uses leftist extremism to explore people without taking a stance one way or the other. Naysayers that deride the film based on its synopsis are missing the point completely. We're cast as observers, left to see the trio succumb to paranoia, anguish, and self-contempt. It's alienating, for sure, in the way that it refuses to crumble under the weight of its own implied politics, but it's also liberating to see a movie tackle this kind of subject matter so objectively.
Whether the apparent politics of the movie are compelling or not, or whether the audience is sympathetic to the characters or not, it is still a visceral study of the fallibility of humans, at once out of place in our world while simultaneously stiflingly integrated. I would commend Reichardt on her ability to put together such a masterclass of suspense and knuckle whitening tension using such a premise. This is not fun cinema, to be sure, carrying its downbeat torch proudly burning for all its audience to see.
Before drawing this to a close, I have to also commend the cinematography of Christopher Blauvelt. His scenes are drawn expertly and go a long a long way to cement the film in a dour reality, beguilingly serene and natural. The color pallet is all muted and natural, while the lighting as well takes advantage of the natural elements around each scene, rather than resorting to big budget Hollywood trickery that results in everything looking filmed on a sound/light stage. His widescreen shots are a good contributor as to how this movie succeeds.
Ultimately, though, it's the adept skill of the cast and director that helps Night moves succeed. Its world is subtle and grim, under a surface of airiness and political pretenses. It excels at remaining objective, never condemning the actions of the cast, but also never glorifying their deed. In how it introduces us and carries us through its particular world is commendable. An unrelentingly tense and harrowing film, it is also quiet and introspective. Rather than pose the question of what would you do, it instead asks how would you react and if you could live with the consequences. And expertly I might add.