Outsiders have always fascinated Kelly Reichardt. Think of the fugitive lovers of River Of Grass, Will Oldham’s aging bohemian in Old Joy, the penniless drifter heroine of Wendy And Lucy, and the lost pilgrims of Meek’s Cutoff. All of these characters, granted a flickering spotlight by their Oregon-based creator, pay a price for their attempts to exist off the grid. Add to the list a new group of fringe dwellers, determined not just to escape the trappings of modern civilization but also to wage war against them. Night Moves, about a group of extremists plotting an attack, may be Reichardt’s most conventional and plot-driven movie. (It’s certainly her most star-studded, featuring the relative wattage of Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, and Peter Sarsgaard.) But the filmmaker’s interests remain firmly fixed on society’s margins, even as she drifts closer to what could be fairly (if only comparatively) described as mainstream cinema.
For a while, Night Moves coasts on mystery, mood, and suspense. Early scenes depict an uneasy alliance between a young man and woman, Josh (Eisenberg) and Dena (Fanning), as they make their way across the Beaver State, stopping to sightsee and to purchase a boat. Are they lovers going through a rough patch, or siblings embarking on an awkward road-trip reunion? Only when the two reach the secluded, backwoods home of Harmon (Sarsgaard), a hermit-like military veteran, does the nature of the relationship become clear: The three are radical activists planning to blow up a hydroelectric dam, mainly to make a grand statement about the environmental cost of reckless consumption. Because of that element, Night Moves may draw comparisons to last year’s eco-terrorist thriller The East. But while the earlier film portrayed its characters theatrically, as eccentric hippie ideologues, Reichardt doesn’t romanticize her trio of troublemakers. They’re essentially ordinary people—angrier cousins to the filmmaker’s usual roster of nonconformists, with Dena as the trust-fund interloper fronting the bill.
Night Moves shows an admirable interest in the nitty-gritty of its characters’ tactics, building tension from the mundane obstacles they face: An attempt to purchase fertilizer (a.k.a. bomb fuel) is nearly thwarted by the lack of proper identification, while an encounter with a congenial passerby drips with potential danger. Just as Meek’s Cutoff fed the conventions of the Western through Reichardt’s distinctly offbeat sensibility, this new one sometimes feels like her attempt at noir—especially once the threat of getting exposed creates a rift between the heroes, and guilt and suspicion floods the back half of the narrative. Reichardt demonstrates a strong command of menacing atmosphere, the unease inflated by Jeff Grace’s magnetically moody score. (Grace, who also composed the synth-tastic soundtrack of Cold In July, is one to watch—or listen to, rather.) And while there’s a certain perversity to casting a nervous chatterbox like Eisenberg as a silent brooding type, the actor tweaks his neurotic energy accordingly. He stares, stares, stares, the paranoia oozing straight out of his eyeballs.
Politically speaking, it’s harder to parse exactly what Night Moves is after. Early on, Josh and Dena take a pit stop in some cramped, basement-like venue, where they watch an amusingly useless essay film; unlike the armchair polemicist who shot it, these two are actually putting their money where their mouths are. But are their actions any more valuable than the words of the amateur artist who earns their scorn? Reichardt lays bare the fallacy of her protagonists’ logic in one brief breakfast-table exchange, providing an alternative to their methods of social change and building to an ending of sharp, bitter irony. There’s a certain muddled ambivalence to the movie; one gets the impression that Reichardt is more interested in these people than their ideas, but she never quite cracks Josh, who’s much more impenetrably aloof than the beleaguered travelers of Meek’s Cutoff, her masterpiece. Night Moves is a portrait of outsiders that leaves its audience on the outside.