Writer/director Kelly Reichardt and her frequent collaborator Jonathan Raymond have crafted some of the best character studies of recent years—Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff—in which those characters communicate almost nothing verbally. Night Moves marks a rare occasion when a Reichardt/Raymond character might have needed to communicate a little bit more.
Always intrigued with people living on the fringes of society, Reichardt here follows three environmental activists plotting an act of terrorism. Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), Dena (Dakota Fanning) and Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) are working together to blow up a dam, and plenty of potential impediments stand in their way. But even when they get what they want, it’s not easy to deal with the unexpected consequences.
As a stripped-down suspense thriller, Night Moves is often simply terrific. Reichardt understands how to stage the moments when the trio’s plan might completely collapse—a merchant refusing to sell the fertilizer they need for their explosives; a car stopped with a flat tire impeding their escape route; a police roadblock—for maximum tension, and putting viewers in the uneasy position of wondering whether or not we hope they succeed.
But while Reichardt and Raymond have some solid material here exploring how far people are willing to take their convictions, Night Moves grows frustrating as we watch Josh in particular deal with the next steps he might have to take after things go awry.
Eisenberg’s performance is too opaque—the slow mounting of his anxiety lacking an emotional or moral clarity—limiting the film to effectiveness on a purely procedural level. It’s very effective on that procedural level, yet while Reichardt has previously been able to mine gold out of silence, whatever Night Moves might want to say about guilt or political zeal remains locked away behind Eisenberg’s eyes.
Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard