In her last movie, “Meek’s Cutoff” (2010), Kelly Reichardt transformed the western into a bleak existential parable with no resolution. People either loved it (like myself) or hated it, the latter predominating. Her new film, “Night Moves,” takes on the suspense thriller, and because it indulges in more of the conventions and expectations of the genre, it will probably be less divisive.
Though at times it threatens to become too generic to be original, or too original to be generic, it retains enough indirection to frustrate those looking for thrills and to engage those willing to be challenged. And by the time the bottom drops out in a characteristically enigmatic ending, “Night Moves” distinguishes itself as a genuine Reichardt movie.
The story unfolds obliquely. A couple, Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) and Dena (Dakota Fanning), is seen in long shot walking along what turns out to be the top of a giant dam, their conversation inaudible. Later they attend an outdoor screening of a documentary that is projected on a bed sheet for an audience of activists. It’s agitprop about inevitable environmental disaster and in the Q&A afterward someone points out that the movie doesn’t offer much hope. What can be done? Don’t focus on the big plans, the filmmaker says. Focus on little plans.
But Josh and Dena have big plans. They buy a speedboat — the “Night Moves” — with cash that Dena has extracted from her “rich daddy.” After driving through dense woods they arrive at a campsite where they meet Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard). He provides them with fake IDs, and it’s only when they go out to buy 500 pounds of fertilizer that it becomes clear how big their plans are.
They hope to make people “think” with their explosive gesture, but their own thoughts seem murky. Dena dropped out of college after taking “one good class” about environmental catastrophe, but despite her seeming radicalism she seems a fatalistic dilettante. Harmon, an ex-Marine, knows all the cant but seems involved mostly because he likes to blow stuff up.
It’s a shaky conspiracy, and the aloof Josh might be the shakiest of them all. He seems sensitive, as he places a fallen nest back in a tree and stops his pick-up to check a deer lying by the roadside. But the nest is empty, and the freshly killed doe, which is pregnant with a live fawn, ends up shoved down a ravine. His feelings about Dena are also obscure. Their relationship seems romantic, but when he overhears her and Harmon in flagrante delicto, his expression is no more sullen than usual. Nor does Eisenberg’s performance offer many clues; he portrays Josh much the same as he does his angst-ridden character in Richard Ayoade’s adaptation of Dostoevsky’s “The Double.”
Don’t expect Hitchcock with “Night Moves.” When it comes to suspense,
Reichardt is the master of anti-climax. But generic uncertainties aside, she demonstrates that the more troubled landscape is found not in the industrially damaged wilds of Oregon, but in the souls of those who will do anything to preserve it.