In Eco-Thriller 'Night Moves,' Jesse Eisenberg is Riveting
Published: June 11, 2014
In about a half-dozen conversations I’ve had in the last week about Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves, at some point the question comes up: Is it named after the Bob Seger song? Does the film feature the song?
No, it is not, and no, it does not. That song is so iconic (aside from being a No. 4 hit in 1976-77, it’s a staple of classic rock radio), it does seem odd that a movie that has literally nothing to do with teen romance would share the name. Maybe that’s part of the plan: Lure in viewers looking for some nostalgia and then blow their minds with an intense but quiet thriller about a trio of would-be eco-terrorist environmentalists.
Hopefully, the filmmakers—and for that matter, viewers—aren’t so cynical. If anything, Night Moves will suffer comparisons with Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling’s The East, a 2013 film about a woman investigating eco-anarchists who slowly succumbs to a mild case of Stockholm syndrome.
Night Moves is quieter than The East, and better, following a trio of people—Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), Dena (Dakota Fanning) and Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard)—plotting to blow up a hydroelectric dam using a boat carrying approximately one ton of nitrogen-enriched fertilizer. The boat is called “Night Moves,” and the plan is to be carried out at night—you can’t blow up dams in the daylight, people.
Josh is a taciturn farmhand in Oregon. Dena is a rich kid who works at a spa. They’re both fervent environmentalists, and they know working on small farms and in holistic spas isn’t going to prevent developers from wrecking the countryside to build more golf courses.
One of the strengths of Reichardt’s and Jon Raymond’s screenplay is that it never lays out explicitly what Josh and Dena, and eventually Harmon, are doing. It’s an excellent example of show-don’t-tell; the characters dole out bits of information to each other on a need-to-know basis, and the audience is in the dark as much as each of the characters is.
Reichardt’s direction is likewise a plus. The dialogue is kept to a minimum, and there are several stretches throughout the film during which more is said with looks, glances and unsteady hands than with words.
The film opens with Josh and Dena checking out the dam they plan to destroy. Soon after, they’re buying the boat for $10,000 cash from a homeowner in the suburbs. Josh and Harmon develop misgivings about Dena, but her ability to pay for the boat and extra fertilizer goes a long way in allaying their fears.
Josh and Dena hook up with Harmon in middle-of-nowhere Oregon and begin setting up. Harmon has good fake IDs for them, but not enough fertilizer, and one of Night Moves’ first taut moments comes when Dena is forced to negotiate at a farm supply store for more.