Bend, Oregon. Josh, Dena and Harmon are environmentalists (radicalized to the extent that working on farms and raising awareness at documentary screenings no longer prove to be enough) who have hatched a plan to blow up a hydroelectric dam on a local river and thus send a message to those who think it is OK, as Josh would put it, to “kill salmon just so [they] can run [their] fucking iPod every second of [their] life”. Night Moves, Kelly Reichardt’s new eco-thriller screened in Venice and Toronto follows these young environmentalists while they perform the tasks needed to pull off their act of eco-terrorism. Indeed, we watch them as they buy a boat, (whose name gives the film its title), buy fake IDs, talk their way into purchasing $500 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer and pack the boat with explosives. Josh, Dena and Harmon’s concerns may be legitimate but their plan ultimately proves miscalculated and dangerous.
But, we can’t help but wonder: Who are they? How did they get to this point in their lives? As a matter of fact, Reichardt seems to think it is more intriguing not to tell us. The result of this choice is that it is impossible to care about these idealists and their fates and the film’s point. We can’t help but wonder either: How should we see them? As heroes or villains? The director chooses to let us figure out for ourselves.
The setting of the film is interesting and original: back-to-the-land almost rural communities of Oregon that prove to be the right place to explore neo-utopian environmentalism: pine-covered mountains, early-autumn verdure, placid lakes and verdant farmlands. All beautifully captured by Christopher Blauvelt. The scenes in which we can see these communities and their activities are highly educating. The effect of this setting is as beautiful as it is disturbing. Moreover, in Night Moves, the environment is just as much a lead character as are the people. But, Kelly Reichardt also sets her film in more intimate spaces that feel almost claustrophobic, such as the tension-packed sequence set in a sauna, somewhat reminiscent of Hitchcock and accompanied by the force of Jeff Grace’s score.
Night Moves becomes a psychological drama in the aftermath of the explosion as the conspirators go their separate ways and return to their normal routines, agreeing not to contact each other until everything settles down. However, when news of a camper who was sleeping downstream from the dam has gone missing come, Dena starts freaking out making Josh and Harmon even more nervous, developing at the same time a nasty rash, a physical manifestation of her guilt. What is increasingly problematic about that turn in the film is that the director spends too much time on Josh and not enough on the others. Along with sparse dialogues, Reichardt’s deliberately slow paced and somewhat meditative approach is highly irritating. Although her script does not succeed in making a persuasive case for the drastic action that ultimately results in multiple deaths (and it might have been better had it ended earlier), the director ends her film on a right note of tarrying ambiguity.
The characters do not spend a lot of time sharing their political thoughts – as they supposedly think the same – the film thus dwelling in showing us where their similar thoughts will lead them. Reichardt appears to be more interested in using action to explore the protagonists’ principles and the consequences of extreme action, also entering the grounds of morality with questions on the ethics of this sort of eco-terrorism such as: is the right thing to do to give themselves up or do whatever it takes to for the good of the cause?
The three leading actors manage to draw the audience into complicity but not even remotely sympathy with their cold, off-putting and cynical characters.
Night Moves is a well-chosen name for a film that unfolds in shadow. It is a quiet thriller in which the three characters fight to find a balance between civilization and nature, between credo and crime. It also explores the morality of terrorism, raising questions about the price and value of destructive actions and of hotheaded and radical illusions of utopianism.
Production: Maybach Film Productions, Film Science, Tipping Point Productions and RT Features (USA 2013). Executive producers: Alejandro De Leon, Larry Fressenden, Todd Haynes, Saerom Kim. Lourenco Sant’Anna Producers: Saemi Kim, Neil Kopp, Chris Maybach, Anish Savjani, Rodrigo Teixeira. Co-producer: Vincent Savino. Associate producer: Roxane Mesquida. Line producer: Brett Cranford. Director: Kelly Reichardt. Screenplay: Jonathan Raymond and Kelly Reichardt. Photography: Christopher Blauvelt. Music: Jeff Grace. Production Design: Elliott Hostetter. Costume design: Victoria Farrell. Editing: Kelly Reichardt.
Cast: Dakota Fanning (Dena Brauer), Jesse Eisenberg (Josh Stamos), Peter Sarsgaard (Harmon), Alia Shawkat (Surprise), James Le Gros (Feed Factory clerk), Katherine Waterston (Anne), Clara Mamet (Jackie), Logan Miller (Dylan), Matt Malloy (boat owner), Kai Lennox (Sean)
Color – 112 min. Premiere: 31-VIII-2013 (Venice Film Festival)
This film was reviewed at the 2013 Venice Film Festival.