Traditionally, the films of Kelly Reichardt have aspired to speak of many intimate things about her subjects while making little use of entangled plots. They succeed greatly. Each work is stark but mysterious, amplifying the nuance by keeping her character’s heads low to the ground. Human experience and how people engage with stress and conflict in their most basic and casual manifestations (like in Old Joy) to uncertain mattesr of survival (as in Meek’s Cutoff and Wendy and Lucy) take centre stage over plot and set pieces.
Night Moves (which has nothing to do with Bob Seger no matter how much you hum the song to yourself or infer any connection after learning what the title refers to) finds Reichardt taking another half-inch towards what I suppose could be a more conventional film after a career based largely in austerity. It’s a suspenseful thriller about ecoterrorists operating in the shadows to enact a bombing. Each of these words marks entirely new territory for Rechardt, though that doesn’t mean you should keep your adrenaline stockpiled for any sort of explosion. It’s a thriller made in the only way you would expect Reichardt to make a thriller.
Jesse Eisenberg plays Josh, an environmental extremist, uniting with two other like-minded warriors, the cautious but charitable Dena (Dakota Fanning) and aloof, laid back ex-Special Forces soldier Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard). They plan to do big damage in order to make a statement about big energy consumption. Each with their own uniquely manifesting kinds of paranoia, they collaborate to bring a damn dam down. As carefully as they go about preparations, their biggest labours present themselves in dealing with potentially haunting and life altering consequences.
This is an odd hybrid for Reichardt, or anyone for that matter. Even Meek’s Cutoff, which was also out of her normal stomping grounds considering its heavy period piece elements, contained grueling and delicious ambiguities. It painted an intimidating portrait without ever picking up a brush. Night Moves makes many more obvious motions. It has a more defined path and a set of goals, but that’s not to say they aren’t executed with an intense sophistication or a more decidedly moral ambiguity that would fly in the face of any plotting. In a way, Reichardt is turning the hounds on the audience for exceptionally higher stakes.
There are still serene, simple snapshots, and slow moving progressions of events, but there’s a lot of more immediate and daunting conflict than her audiences may expect, especially in the second half. Typically, audiences are given infinite time to meditate with Kelly’s cast, whereas here they still feel like they’re in her universe but more focussed on specific tasks. There are fewer ambiguities to fill in yourself in terms of actual motivations, but that doesn’t mean Night Moves isn’t just hustling from point to point.
It’s still a film driven by human reactions about much larger dramatic gestures. Fanning, Sarsgaard, and Eisenberg have different manifestations of quivering, and they’re not the kind of conspirators that sync. Their fears wind around each other in ugly, ugly ways. Ultimately, just because it’s a median in Reichardt’s style doesn’t mean it’s not a sweet spot. It’s an interesting vantage point for a film that revolves around a literal and a metaphorical kaboom.