At its best, American director Kelly Reichardt's work has always dealt with the apparently unsurmountable chasm between the America of myth and legend and the America of hardscrabble reality, her characters constantly struggling to make things in response to the dream of a better future for everyone but not necessarily aware of how much they're "buying into" the American Dream. Night Moves follows her remarkable quasi-western Meek's Cutoff in the appropriation of genre as a framework for another meditation on an America that has lost its way, through the tale of an environmentalist protest action gone wrong.
Bombing an Oregon dam to "set the river free" and protest the continuous destruction of the public good that is nature in the name of profit, sullen farm worker Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), gregarious former serviceman Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) and carefree daddy's girl Dena (Dakota Fanning) are apparently going out on a limb and have really not given much thought to the consequences of what they're doing, let alone the reasons and purposes. Though they live "off the grid", either at natural farms or holistic retreats, they're still hemmed in at every point by the society around them - they drive everywhere, eat mostly pre-packaged food, use cellphones.
These small ironies, coupled with the slow realisation that the three are not necessarily on the same page when it becomes obvious their action has claimed an unexpected victim suggest an element of "Sunday activism" involved, underlined by Ms. Reichardt's meticulously process-led handling of the events. Whatever tension exists in the progressively tightened grip of the plot comes not out of the usual acceleration of events but, rather, of its deceleration, the numbness of the daily routines and necessary chores to make the bombing happen; it's the overlay of context, expertly modulated to build mood and disquiet, that attests to the director's carefully classic, observational functionalism.
For all that, and for the film's enormous intelligence and slowly unfolding moral weight, underlined by Christopher Blauvelt's nocturnal lensing, I can't help but feel that the requirements of a more traditional genre plot, even if distorted by Ms. Reichardt and novelist Jon Raymond, her usual screenwriting collaborator, somewhat hinder Night Moves rather than help it. The necessary waypoints that propel the plot forward seem somewhat predictable, and at odds with the director's traditional attention to quiet thoughtfulness and the cast's careful performances, almost as if Ms. Reichardt tried to blend two films into one. It works, for the most part, and this is still a valuable, smart production, but there's a sense this isn't as remarkable an effort as what has come before, that it is a stepping stone on the way to something else.
USA, Brazil 2013
Cast Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard, Alia Shawkat, Logan Miller, Kai Lennox, Katherine Waterston, James le Gros
Director and editor Kelly Reichardt; screenwriters Jon Raymond and Ms. Reichardt; cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt (colour); composer Jeff Grace; designer Elliott Hostetter; costumes Vicki Farrell; producers Neil Kopp, Anish Savjani, Chris Maybach, Saemi Kim and Rodrigo Teixeira; production companies Maybach Film Productions, RT Features Entertainment and Filmscience in association with De Leon Productions
Screened June 19th 2014 (distributor DVD screener, Lisbon) and July 3rd 2014 (distributor press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 14, Lisbon)