Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard
Genre: Drama/ Thriller
Josh (Eisenberg), Dena (Fanning) and Harmon (Sarsgaard) are environmental activists who decide that in order to make a statement they must blow up a dam. They successfully execute their plan, but what ensues afterwards is an unexpected path of deep unexpected guilt, increasing and relentless paranoia and questioning of the actual point of their actions.
Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves is quite unique in that when writing the synopsis it is very difficult to avoid justifying and giving exposition to the actions of the protagonists that drive the plot in a film that very much intentionally avoids doing such things. The film never attempts to justify or vilify their actions, let alone explain them. Likewise we are given very little explanation of who the characters are and not given a chance to form an opinion of them. Night Moves is a film of mood and atmosphere that explores the human condition of that though a crime may be committed with honest intentions, it is still a crime and therefore has repercussions, even if most of them may be solely in the mind of the perpetrator.
Reichardt and co-writer Jonathan Raymond keep the script to the bare minimum, making every word of the naturalistic dialogue count. The film unashamedly takes a stoic stance from the start that it is not catering for anyone, and in this day and age that is to be very much applauded in my view. We are just thrown into the world of these characters as they buy a boat, manage to buy explosives and blow up a dam, with very little explanation. It is economic and uncompromising storytelling, and though it makes the film initially difficult to get into, once the crime takes place the tense atmosphere takes hold and does genuinely make gripping viewing till the film’s very last shot.
The pace of Night Moves is intentionally very slow, and it is always hard to keep a slow pace to create a slow and brooding atmosphere of increasing tension but avoid overdoing it and make scenes feel like pure filler. However, on the whole Reichardt manages that balance very well even though a few moments do ultimately feel like filler. These individual moments are quite tense in their own right, but pay no overall contribution to the atmosphere of the narrative which is ultimately based on pure paranoia and subconscious. With a running time of 112 minutes my only real criticism is that Night Moves indeed sometimes has these scenes that are tense in their own right, but because the fear and tension comes from clear and physical threats they actually detract from the overall tense atmosphere of the narrative as opposed to adding to it.
Once the big act takes place, Reichardt skilfully creates an atmosphere of genuine tension without having to resort to lazy set pieces. Many have described Night Moves as boring; well firstly they are very wrong as yes, not a lot happens, but that is precisely the point as the fear and paranoia is predominantly in the minds of the protagonists and it is Reichardt’s skilful examination of this that makes Night Moves such an absorbing film. All actions have consequences, some tragic and unexpected, and the skilful subtlety that Night Moves examines these with makes the atmosphere of the narrative all the more effectively tense.
For a film of this nature great performances are a must, especially with the script being so minimal. As the main protagonist Jesse Eisenberg is exceptional, truly immersing himself into the mysterious character of Josh with an incredibly physical and intense performance. It would be very easy for an actor to overplay the intensity and increasing feeling of paranoia that Josh feels, but Eisenberg is a superb screen presence and embraces with subtle perfection the deep feelings that Josh feels internally, and the increasing struggles he has of hiding these feelings from people as he becomes increasingly introverted and tense around all people. Though featuring in far fewer scenes than Eisenberg, Fanning and Sarsgaard are also excellent.
Night Moves is undoubtedly a film that intentionally avoids the mainstream norms of narrative filmmaking, and though some may find that alienating, for those willing to make the effort it is a deeply atmospheric and engaging drama. This is not a film of clear good and bad people, and though the ending may frustrate some, in my view it is perfectly fitting for the themes and ideas Reichardt’s film skilfully examines.
A film that unashamedly shuns all mainstream methods of storytelling and emerges all the more effective for it; Night Moves is pure mood cinema that is not about the story but examination of a theme. Despite a few moments that prove to be a distraction rather than effective addition, director Kelly Reichardt successfully creates a deep and atmospheric examination of one simple, but deeply effective idea.