' Cinema Romantico: Night Moves

Monday, July 07, 2014

Night Moves

Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) inspects a motorboat his two fellow environmentalists, Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) and Dena (Dakota Fanning), have purchased for decidedly non-recreational reasons, and wistfully points out that with a little care it would likely still have years left. Well, he’s not just talking about the boat, he’s talking about earth, because with a little care our friendly blue planet would likely have years left in it. Such tree-hugging optimism, however, ignores their real intent, which is to pack the boat full of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, park it by a mammoth hydroelectric dam and blow it to kingdom come. And if that’s true, it would seem these environmentalists turned eco-terrorists are subverting the very idea that a little care toward mother Earth goes a long way. Maybe all men, violent clowns in Gotham and staunch vegans alike, just want to watch the world burn.


Then again, “Night Moves”, the jaw-dropping new film from director (and editor and co-writer) Kelly Reichardt, refrains from spelling out its characters’ exact intentions. Minimalism is her preferred technique, and while it could be said that minimalism attempts to get at the truth by withholding, I would argue that she shows us all we need to know. This is not to say our principal trio explicitly debate ethics. Aside from a single passage not even involving them, we are pointedly left to wonder “the point.” Sure, Josh has some brief rambling about how their actions will get people “talking”, but talking about what and to what purpose?

Yet despite this absence of motivation, each character is provided a specific voice, the means by which we get to know them. Harmon is oddly breezy, as if such vigilant acts of green-minded rebellion are old hat for him. Dena, the rich girl with the cash to fund the operation and who has never gone along for something of this scale and illegality, is a classic Chatty Cathy, cracking jokes and talking fast and apparently unaware of what emotionally awaits. Her chatter, in fact, is what allows them to score the necessary amount of a fertilizer from a suspicious store owner, a scene that in any other movie would be crafted for suspense but is intended here to simply observe behavior. It’s a scene that makes you believe in the kindness of strangers even as it simultaneously proves that idiom a lie. Her talkativeness leaves us to wonder the precise relationship between she and Josh, since he is tight-lipped and closed-off, emitting a strong air of torment but without convenient clues regarding what ails him or where he comes from.

One sequence finds Josh returning to Harmon's hidden-away trailer with dinner, only to pause on account of sounds emanating from inside. Though it's never overtly addressed, we and Josh are left to assume Harmon and Dena are having sex. Rather than combust, he sets down the food and sets off for a stroll through the woods. In other words, love for nature is what drives him, not a love for anyone else. It's a remarkable emphasizing of opposite desires - selfless and selfish - driving them all. 

Reichardt’s previous work has determinedly made the landscape a supporting character, particularly in the brilliant "Meek's Cutoff", where a group on the Oregon Trail comes to feel the landscape as a vice, the gorgeously rocky vistas threatening to press in and squash them as their journey goes awry. In "Night Moves", the landscape of the Pacific Northwest, inhabited by organic farmers and naturalists, is a distinctly serene place even amidst the rainy gray. Yet there are other moments frightfully illustrating man's dismissal of its own pristine surroundings. Consider the sequence when our principal trio drives through a campground. We see them from within the interior of a nameless couple’s motor home, the apparent husband and wife ignoring the trees of Joyce Kilmer poems to watch a game show on their gas guzzling vehicle’s mounted television. The indignation in the shot is overt, and other moments sprinkled through are just as rife with acrimony (such as an area of burnt-out trees painting the forest as a neglected hellscape), and yet what most interests Reichardt in the end is not deploring anti-environmentalists (or even the environmentally clueless) but questioning the motivation of eco-terrorists.


Thematically, "Night Moves" feels most influenced by "If A Tree Falls", the 2011 Oscar-nominated documentary that chronicled a failed terrorist operation by the Earth Liberation Front leaving certain members of its sect in jail or on the run. The overriding idea there had less to do with ecology than with the empty realization all their so-called action changed nothing. How much regret certain characters in "Night Moves" feel is debatable, but what comes in loud and clear is the futility of their choice. The eventual explosion itself is heard off camera, never seen, perhaps a budgetary decision, but more likely a signifier how something that may inflict fiscal and symbolic damage is still just background noise.

This is the closest Reichardt has yet come to submitting a genuine genre piece, and she includes red herrings and manufactured suspense, like a flat tire at the worst time, while the third act centers around a moral dilemma as old as Michael Corleone, and beyond. Even so, the film never feels stale nor fake, pulsing with a taciturn dread, a portion of which can be traced directly to Eisenberg's performance. He's gone down in pop culture to this point as a loquacious neurotic, but proves entirely convincing as someone forever clammed up. And the more he loses control of the situation, the more he withdraws, eventually losing himself not in Oregon's forested valleys but in the perpetuating urban jungle.

In "Night Moves" it is not the landscape threatening to eat its characters alive, but industry and commerce threatening to eat the landscape, and soon all that will be left is parking lots of concrete and SUV’s, and outlet stores peddling high-priced equipment for camping trips no one wants to take.

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