Friday, June 20, 2014

Night Moves

NIGHT MOVES (Kelly Reichardt, 2013)

Living in secrecy seems like a tall, if not impossible, task these days. One can take steps to reduce fear and suspicion of the National Security Agency monitoring web activity and phone calls, but the people one interacts with will always be potential loose ends regardless of how much trust is placed in them. The three environmentalists plotting to blow up the Green Peter Dam in NIGHT MOVES keep low profiles and cover their tracks, yet throughout the planning each remains leery that one among them will burn them.

Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) is a sensitive sort who will stop to pick up a fallen bird’s nest and move a deer struck by a car off the side of the road. He lives in a yurt on the co-op Oregon farm where he works. To passersby this quiet, slightly built young man looks about as unthreatening as possible, but his exterior belies a radical’s intensity and dangerousness. Dena (Dakota Fanning) comes from a wealthy Connecticut family whose lifestyle she’s disavowed to support the cause. She lights up with the passion of the newly converted. Dena gladly puts up her funds to gain greater participation in Josh’s eco-terrorist activities. In this case that means providing ten thousand dollars in cash to purchase the boat named Night Moves that they intend to load with ammonium nitrate fertilizer and detonate by the concrete dam. Josh’s friend Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) lives off the grid, more or less, in a trailer in the countryside, but his reliability is up for debate when it seems he’s not as unknown in the area as thought.

Director and co-writer Kelly Reichardt wrings tension from the rampant paranoia among the trio leading up to their political act and the ratcheting up of suspense as they respond to its aftermath. Innocent questions and unknown cars pulling up to the workplace become worrisome. Headlights in the rearview mirror gain accusatory significance. Even a job application leaves a trace. Josh becomes more withdrawn and skittish to the friends and colleagues who don’t know what he’s been involved in. Neither the physical world nor one’s mind provide totally safe hiding places. NIGHT MOVES gives the sense that communicating with others is ultimately undesirable. In the film’s rare humorous spots, these environmental true believers dismiss the foolishness of those they encounter while trying to go unnoticed.

Despite their unconscionable deed, we feel somehow complicit with Josh, Dena, and Harmon by virtue of watching and following them. Reichardt identifies that abetment in the heart-stopping moment after they’re trying to leave the scene and the first turn of the key fails to start their truck. The viewer’s reaction suggests a wish for them not to be caught regardless of how we judge their actions. By getting that response Reichardt and co-writer Jonathan Raymond peer into how one can be seduced into extremism through gradual exposure when otherwise such behavior would seem out of the question to most rational people.

Eisenberg is terrifying because of the mental energy he shows Josh must expend to hold it together while denying normal human emotions. He must always be on guard and wear a mask, although he permits a small smile to himself after hearing the bomb explode in the distance. The character’s beliefs are unsettling, but the manner in which he justifies and compartmentalizes what he does in opposition with an otherwise gentle nature reveals a monster let loose from its cage. Josh fixates on making a statement than achieving results. As NIGHT MOVES shows, once that decision is arrived at, that’s a frightening state of existence.

Grade: A-

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