Writer-director Kelly Reichardt brings her trademark realist style, political focus and love of nature to the thriller format in “Night Moves,” a tale of three radical environmentalists planning, executing and navigating the aftermath of an act of eco-sabotage. The result is a drama that both simmers with suspense and affirms Reichardt’s status as a distinctive voice.
Delivering observation over octane, Reichardt (“Old Joy,” “Wendy and Lucy”) makes films featuring characters immersed in predicaments as they deal with unexpected hitches in their paths. Keeping plot and dialogue to a minimum, she uses arresting visual shots, morsels of conversation and good actors to make her stories vital.
“Night Moves,” a political and psychological thriller, is her most accessible work to date.
In Oregon’s splendid natural landscape, Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), a humorless, self-absorbed organic farmer, and Dena (Dakota Fanning), a naive, wealthily bred college dropout, are committed environmentalists plotting to blow up a hydroelectric dam to draw attention to its impact on the wildlife-rich environment.
Explosives-savvy former Marine Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) joins them. The trio builds a fertilizer bomb and travel up the river.
Unexpected fallout triggers paranoia, guilt and desperate attempts at self-preservation. Inner struggles become a threat even greater than the cops the characters must evade.
The genre recipe isn’t a perfect fit for Reichardt. While her noir tone is intriguing, the dramatic plot point she and co-writer Jon Raymond deliver at climax time defies credibility. Josh, meanwhile, is such an ill-tempered jerk that the tragedy of his situation doesn’t affect viewers as much as it should.
But overall, the film is an engrossing, intelligent thriller for grown-ups and a nonpreachy look at the reverberations of violence.
As a procedural, it unfolds grippingly. Whether Dena and Josh are buying a boat from an unsuspecting suburbanite, or Dena is persuading a store owner to sell her 500 pounds of ammonium-nitrate fertilizer, or Harmon is touting eggs over oatmeal as to what Dena should be eating for breakfast, Reichardt sustains the tension.
The actors give down-to-earth but emotionally charged performances distinguished by a subsurface simmer that sometimes intensifies into a slow boil. Eisenberg is scarily believable as a committed eco-warrior with sinister shades. With less to work with, Fanning and Sarsgaard transcend stereotypes associated with a rebellious rich girl and a reckless ex-Marine.
A proficient dramatist, Reichardt addresses the moral dilemmas surrounding the characters’ actions by presenting, fly-on-the-wall-style, comments issued by farm comrades. At the same time, she acknowledges the nobler sentiment behind the trio’s quest, presenting, through cinematographer’s Christopher Blauvelt’s naturalistic lens, striking images of Pacific Northwest scenery.
Night Moves ★★★
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard
Written by Kelly Reichardt, Jon Raymond
Directed by Kelly Reichardt
Running time 1 hour, 52 minutes