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Night Moves

A measured, minimalistic environmental thriller about a small group of activists planning to blow up a dam.
By Tom Clift
September 15, 2014
By Tom Clift
September 15, 2014

Kelly Reichardt's Night Moves is a work of moral and technical greys. A measured, minimalistic environmental thriller about a small group of activists planning to blow up a dam, it's a tale that creeps along with low, silent tension, propelled by the work of its three primary actors and the morally ambiguous actions of the characters that they play. What it lacks, however, is a sustainable sense of momentum. Without it, the film struggles to stay afloat.

Reichardt's eco-warriors aren't the most original of characters, but she's able to get away with it thanks to the calibre of her cast. There's paranoid loner Josh (Jesse Eisenberg, jumpier than usual), rebellious trust-fund kid Dena (a dressed-down Dakota Fanning) and burnt-out ex-marine Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard, disaffected and acerbic). Together they hatch an act of environmental terrorism as a means of upsetting the consumerist status quo.

As in her previous films Meek's Cutoff and Wendy and Lucy, Reichardt's directorial approach is one of dispassionate observation. The camera follows the anarchist trio without any undue flair or sense of judgement. As such, the suspense becomes increasingly interwoven with questions of audience culpability. Viewers will go back and forth as to whether the group's actions are in any way justifiable. But after observing every step of the mission's meticulous preparation, it's difficult not to feel invested in its success.

In one sequence, for example, Dena must try to convince a supplier to sell her 500 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertiliser without providing proper identification. It's a simple scene, entirely dialogue driven. And yet it's as riveting as watching a time-bomb tick backwards down to zero.

Where Night Moves begins to falter is in its handling of the fallout from the attack. It's not a spoiler to say that things don't go the way the group expects, and soon cracks in their solidarity begin to appear. There's tension to be mined here, in the fear and mistrust, but Reichardt seems unable to really exploit it. The narrative and visual minimalism, initially such an asset, eventually leaves the audience feeling numb. By the time the movie stumbles to its unconvincing conclusion, the atmosphere has entirely disappeared.

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