On first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d seen Night Moves before.
A tale of ambitious eco-terrorists directed by a well-respected, if relatively little-known indie director, featuring an emotionally guarded lead, a maturing young actress, and a Scandinavian-sounding “leader”. Only the film’s poster immediately distinguishes it from 2013’s The East.
Unlike The East, however – which starred Brit Marling, Ellen Page, and Alexander Skarsgård, Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves isn’t aiming for thrills. The film opens with water spraying from a pipe, part of the hydroelectric dam, we later learn, our three leads intend to destroy. The boat they intend to use to do it: Night Moves. That, sadly, is about as explicative as the film gets.
Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) is a grizzled, recalcitrant loner about whom we know next to nothing. One instant he will gently place a bird’s nest back in its tree; the next he’ll dispassionately roll a dead doe down an embankment, away from traffic. While Eisenberg is an actor capable of great interiority – see The Social Network – but the meandering script gives him little to work with.
While Josh is ostensibly our protagonist, Night Moves gives nearly equal weight to Dakota Fanning’s Dena. A precocious rich “kid” who’s bankrolling the action, her presence is the closest thing the film gets to making a statement. Her failure to seize upon the ethos of “a lot of small plans”, as advocated by a conservationist filmmaker in an early scene, leads Dena and her comrades into deep water.
Night Moves isn’t “about” anything: Reichardt is content to dispassionately observe these characters, often through extended, near silence sequences of simple tasks like mixing cement. This obsession with detail slows the film’s pace to a crawl – at 113 minutes it feels longer. For all its understatedness, there’s no overall purpose, just as sense of detachment.
While this is theoretically a committed piece of film-making, the question is, committed to what: Night Moves forsakes exposition and context – and often characters; Peter Sarsgaard’s humourful bomb-maker Harmon vanishes during the final act – in favor of a perverse, anti-narrative sort of naturalism. We never really understand the trio’s motivation behind the attack, nor their existence beyond it; though it feels like a hip film to “get”.
Not deep enough for social commentary, too lacking in insight to be a character study, Night Moves avoids moralizing, but tediously mistakes obscurity for ambiguity, painful exactitude for fidelity, and aesthetic commitment for narrative purpose. Despite the bomb at the heart of it, in the end Night Moves provides nothing worth the detonating.