“God knows that dam wants to come down.”
The American Dream is by all means an aspiration filled with both an undeniable access and excess. Cars, homes, clothes, you name it. We no longer daydream about a quiet suburban setting with a white picket fence. The Happy Days ideology is long gone. We’re compulsive consumers, living with our own kind of Prader-Willi syndrome that is fueled by things and things only. Night Moves questions why that is and presents an appealing case for both sides. Each one is extreme, but neither is completely infallible in its stance. The point of view that the film presents understandably and disappointingly had me looking for more.
A three person army of environmentally conscious radicals sets out to destroy a dam. You’d think the movie would build towards that event, show the aftermath, and be done with it. But that’s not the case here. Their attempt happens early on with a boat full of five hundred pounds of explosive fertilizer. From there on out we get to see how it affects each of their lives. The story is slowbuilding and restrained as it piles up with tense moments and personal interactions. It’s compelling to say the least.
Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) is the self-appointed leader of the trio. He’s one hundred percent focused on the task at hand and stoical to the point that we never fully understand his drive. Balancing Josh’s militant personality is the more reformed Dena (Dakota Fanning). She’s intelligent but also a realist, fulfilling the role she believes will help save our planet. They buy a boat that the film is named after and enlist the help of Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard). Although he’s the most laid back and confident of the three, he’s really no different. They’re like friends sitting at a high school cafeteria lunch table gossiping about a group across the way. They are like-minded people unwilling to look outside of the box that houses their own beliefs.
Like crime-noir films of old, these are performances that serve the story and not vice versa. The distinctly atypical characters populate a concise, driven storyworld. No lines, shots, or action goes wasted. Kelly Reichardt, director of similar movies Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff, knows that is what’s necessary to hammer the message home. The visuals are stark but never somber, and artistic shot choices brighten an otherwise simple film about complex characters.
Fanning is perfectly cast as the responsible rebel dependent upon her looks and charm to get her way while also maintaining a constant vulnerability. Sarsgaard is a pro, never stealing the spotlight, instead just doing his job to shape the character into who Harmon needs to be. I was left completely perplexed by Eisenberg. Josh is like a kettle on the verge of letting out a howling, enraged whistle. The problem is, we don’t know what’s boiling inside him, and we never come close to figuring out why it’s on the burner to begin with. Some tracking shots just find him walking with no destination or purpose. It resembles Truffaut’s usage in the famous Jules and Jim except this is hollow, almost observational cinema with no dialogue and little audio. The results are as partisan as the central characters.
Night Moves is a difficult film to review. It’s technically sound and presents us with a story applicable towards the current geological culture. At the same time, it’s almost too grim to enjoy. Some parts are amusing, especially a telling scene where we see an elderly couple at a camp site sitting in their oversized RV watching The Price is Right. Most will probably hate the ending despite it being absolutely right. Paranoia never ceases, and just like the last shot, we know the future will hold constant looks over the shoulder. Watch this if you want intelligent and tense drama, skip it if you’re looking for any level of excitement.
“How long will it be until humanity understands everything is connected?”
Rating: 3.5 out of 5