The Most Beautiful Fraud: Night Moves

Kelly Reichardt’s films are, to put it mildly, deliberate.  Their pacing is so careful and precise as to be torpid (if you’re generous) or boring (if you’re not). I’ve seen every one of her movies, and I’ve enjoyed every one; like Chantal Akerman, there is a method to her maddening slowness.  Every film builds to an emotional conclusion, and it’s more or less worth waiting for; in Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy it’s more subtle and inevitable, delivering its small pleasures and dreads a little drab at a time, while with Meek’s Cutoff she managed to create a true rarity, a film that justifies its entire running time in the last ten minutes.  So when I heard the first few scant details about Night Moves (no relationship to the 1979 Arthur Penn neo-noir, or to the insufferable Bob Seger number — the title comes from the name of a boat purchased by the main characters), I knew I was on board, as Reichardt has yet to make a disappointing film. But I’ll admit that I experienced a certain sense of dread in hearing it described as a thriller.  Reichardt’s movies are a lot of things, but thrilling is not one of them.

The movie follows the actions of three people — Dakota Fanning, Jesse Eisenberg, and Peter Sarsgaard — who reluctantly collaborate in the destruction of a hydroelectric dam.  Their motives are left murky (they are, it is implied, radicalized members of a more mainstream environmental movement), as are their backgrounds and relationships, which allows Reichardt to get by almost entirely on mood and menace:  the perpetually scowling Eisenberg clearly wants to be top dog, but finds himself cock-blocked, literally and figuratively, by Sarsgaard’s cynical and seemingly more experienced character.  Fanning, meanwhile, seems frustrated by the dueling egos of the two men and is eager to make their act of eco-terrorism happen, but she just as clearly is the one with the most ethical qualms, and who seems like the one with the most to lose.  With such a small cast and relatively little action, the dynamic between these three is of paramount importance, and each actor does extremely well with the material they are given:  Eisenberg is all nervous hostility and frustrated determination; Sarsgaard nicely projects a bravado and experience that immediately smells false; and Fanning is eerie sincerity blended with fear.  (This comes out best in a chilling, nervy scene where she is sent to but the last batch of fertilizer the trio needs to make their bomb.  Faced with a skeptical — and more than a little sexist and condescending — feed salesman, perfectly portrayed by James LeGros, she managed to project both vulnerability, iron will, and self-confidence, almost completely drawing you on to her side until you remember what she’s there for, and that the clerk’s skepticism is completely justified.)

The attack is carried out in eerie darkness, with the party boat Fanning has purchased disonnantly laden down with high explosives and silently drifting towards the massive and oppressive-looking dam.  This scene is impeccably filmed and one of the highlights of the movie, with Reichardt trusting her instincts for pacing and tension and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt (Meek’s Cutoff and The Bling Ring) delivering an incredible visual contrast.  And it’s at this point that, well, damned if the movie doesn’t actually turn into a thriller.  The destruction of the dam itself plays out like a classic heist picture, with tiny little things that seem meaningless at the time providing the seeds of huge mistakes down the road, and the weaknesses of each of the characters leading to critical errors.  After this, though, it takes on the elements of a psychological thriller; the three decide to part ways, but we know they haven’t seen the last of one another.  When it becomes clear that their act has taken an innocent life, Eisenberg and Sarsgaard both identify Fanning as the weak link most likely to go to the police, but Sarsgaard is wiser still, accurately assessing Eisenberg as having both the greatest potential for violence and the greatest lack of will, making him easy to manipulate.   On the run from his own people — who have sussed him as being involved in the bombing with very little effort — Eisenberg goes after Fanning, and the tension truly transforms the film again, this time into a creepy, cheap, low-stakes slasher movie. It’s a jarring shift, but it carries a surprising amount of brutal emotional power.  The ending lets the air out more than a little, a particular disappointment given how well Reichardt did concluding her last film, but for most of its run time, Night Moves is impressive and shockingly fluid.

Night Moves wasn’t without difficulties.  The mysterious nature of the three main characters was probably the right decision, but it got irritatingly claustrophobic at times, as each player’s motivations were nearly impossible to work out, even when their individual loyalties became critical to the action.  The final confrontation between Fanning and Eisenberg was terrifying and effective, but it also managed to render the scenes that followed somewhat weightless, and the final scene, featuring Eisenberg in a chain store asking for a job application, was ambiguous to the point of incomprehensibility. But it was a much more interesting and, frankly, exciting film that I thought Riechardt capable of, and its flaws, such as they were, had very little to do with her hallmarks as a director, so it was a pleasant surprise that she was able to maintain her signature style while still delivering an effective piece of genre filmmaking so far out of her wheelhouse.  She also got terrific performances out of the expected young actors and others, including LeGros and Arrested Development‘s Alia Shawkat.  Overall, this doesn’t feel like the great leap forward that was Meek’s Cutoff,a movie that actually played on her strengths every minute until its killer payoff rather than just incorporating them into a fairly smooth narrative, but it’s still a movie worth seeing, and very pleasing proof that one of the most distinct viewpoints in American cinema is not just willing, but able, to stretch herself into new shapes while keeping her core intact.

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