Night Moves

September 13, 2014
Jesse Eisenberg in 'Night Moves' (2013)
Jesse Eisenberg in 'Night Moves' (2013)

In title and style, Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves pays homage to director, Arthur Penn, whose 1975 film of the same name is now viewed as a minor classic. Penn’s movie was a late example of film noir, with the usual flawed characters, brittle relationships and dark motivations. Reichardt’s story revolves around a group of friends who set out to commit a crime for idealistic reasons, and suffer the consequences of their actions.

Jesse Eisenberg is Josh, a greenie who lives on a communal farm. Together with his friends, Dena (Dakota Fanning), and Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), Josh is planning to bomb a hydroelectric dam in Oregon which the conspirators see as a blot on the environment. This act of eco-terrorism is intended to alert the general public to the wasteful, exploitative nature of facilities that cater to human comforts at nature’s expense.

The first part of the film shows the tortuous preparations for the plan, as they encounter a frustrating series of obstacles. It is the aftermath that presents the real difficulties, when the trio have to conceal their involvement in the deed and cope with a tension that never diminishes.

The idea of a radical terrorist act on the behalf of a good cause is not new. One thinks of groups such as the Weathermen in the 1960s, and other homegrown American revolutionaries. The difference is that Josh, Dena and Harmon are not acting as part of a group, but as free agents. In an age of constant surveillance they are taking risks that never arose with the radicals of previous generations. Even the process of buying the quantity of ammonium nitrate needed to construct a bomb becomes a nail-biting exercise.

Reichardt takes a coolly objective view of her protagonists. We only ever see them as they appear to others. Josh, in particular, is introverted and melancholy. We assume that Dena is his girlfriend, but they are never intimate. Harmon, a former Marine, is at first suspicious of Dena, whom he sees as a wealthy man’s drop-out daughter looking for thrills. But before the great deed is done, Josh suspects that his two friends are playing around behind his back.

Like a good revolutionary, Josh tries to ignore the sexual tension and concentrate on accomplishing the task. Despite his sullenness he has a stubborn, naïve, fanatical streak that finds expression in bursts of half-baked rhetoric. Eisenberg gives us a character that seems to withdraw ever deeper into himself, becoming disturbed and anxious as he broods on the chasm that has opened up between his noble intentions and the sordid events that follow. Reichardt has compared his personality to that of Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

There is also a problem with Dena, who suffers an emotional breakdown that puts them all in jeopardy of exposure. The chill begins to set in almost as soon as the bombers have resumed normal life, keeping a calculated distance from one another. This leaves Josh and Dena alone with their own troubled consciences and the pressure of keeping a secret.

True to its title, much of this story seems to take place in the shadows – in the forests of Oregon, or the dark places Josh has made for himself. If there is an implausible element about the terrorist act itself, the psychology of fear and guilt is conveyed with a convincing realism. Night Moves shows the internal conflicts that make it hard for self-styled American radicals to act against the society that has helped shape their beliefs and attitudes. It shows a small group who feel compelled to act on their convictions and strike out against that entity the hippies dubbed “The System”, only to find it’s impossible to step outside its confines and strike a blow for abstract justice. Within the all-encompassing System, there is no good and evil, only the implacable logic of the law.

Night Moves
Directed by Kelly Reichardt
Written by Jonathan Raymond & Kelly Reichardt
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard
USA, rated M, 112 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 13th September, 2014.