Three radical environmentalists blow up a hydro-electric dam in Oregon, and then face the consequences of their extreme actions in Kelly Reichardt's meditative, observational suspense-drama. Already beloved by many for her minimalist chronicles of American malaise “Wendy and Lucy” and “Meek's Cutoff,” Reichardt's fifth feature is strongest in its set-up before becoming a tad perplexing and taking a baffling wrong turn at its inconclusive ending.
Jesse Eisenberg stars as Josh, the leader of this unlikely band of eco-militants. He's an intensely private person not given to idle engagement or chatter, whose Earth-saving idealism leads him down a far darker path than he would have imagined. Dakota Fanning brings a sparky presence to the role of rich-girl dropout Dena, although her character remains underdeveloped, as does Peter Sarsgaard's Harmon, a radicalised ex-Marine played with the actor's typical relaxed, insouciant charm.
Early sequences establish this trio as a disconnected bunch of plotters. Dena almost behaves like she's on a jolly adventure, joking about the silly names they could give the used speedboat, “Night Moves,” they plan to fill with explosives, but also proving herself useful when she schmoozes her way into the purchase of 500 lbs of ammonium nitrate fertilizer. Reichardt commits her focus to the procedural effort of pulling the conspiracy off, with snippets of conversation along the way - about the death of the oceans, towns with 29 golf courses and a resource-devouring consumer culture that “kills all the salmon so you can listen to your fucking iPod all the time” - revealing their angry conviction.
Although the plan comes off without any major hitches, the aftermath is progressively fraught. Reichardt strives to ramp up the suspense as Dena splinters emotionally and Josh is consumed by paranoid anxiety. It's here that the filmmaker begins to lose her grip: Josh's mask of silence makes him an extremely tough nut to crack, not just for those around him but for the audience, with Dena (and, less crucially, Harmon) vanishing from the story precisely when it cries out for her presence most. “Night Moves” suffers in Fanning's absence.
Nonetheless, this is Reichardt's most accessible film to date, less esoteric than “Wendy and Lucy” and “Meek's Cutoff,” but still as lucid, intelligent and considered. The way she captures the Oregon landscape, too, is terrific, almost wistful, but “Night Moves” loses too much narrative impetus towards the end for it to fully engage with mainstream audiences.