Unrelentingly tense from start to finish, Night Moves is a superbly crafted character-driven drama that maintains its stranglehold on your anxiety from start to finish.
Right Moves by Dave O’Flanagan
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
For a director that has built a very solid career by subverting genre (Meek’s Cutoff), Kelly Reichardt’s impressive Night Moves is both an extension of this reputation and then some. Written by Reichardt and writing partner Jonathan Raymond, it’s a remarkable feat for the Miamian to present us with three largely unsavoury characters and then making them relatable somehow. Capitalising on a tightly coiled script, Reichardt’s accomplished direction forces you to endure the tense and ominous atmosphere, making you feel like an accomplice to the actions of these misguided eco terrorists.
Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), Dena (Dakota Fanning) and Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) are three radical environmentalists who target the destruction of a hydroelectric dam. When they succeed in their task the three are faced with an unexpected reality in the wake of the explosion. Josh and Dena return to their normal lives and struggle to reconcile their actions with the aftermath.
Driving down a darkened highway, Josh and Dena discover a dead doe on the side of the road. Pulling over and getting out of the vehicle, Josh gets down on his haunches and examines the animal. “It’s still warm” he says, “What does that mean?” asks Dena, “it’s a doe…she’s pregnant…the baby’s alive in there” he says with a flicker of emotion. Josh moves the dear from the road and slides her down the side of highway and gets back into the truck. This off-beat scene is a perfect example of so many scenes in Kelly Reichardt’s perfectly tense, cold and claustrophobic film – it’s rarely exactly what you’d expect. She allows her camera to hover languidly over every scene about two to three minutes longer than you are comfortable with, but it all results in the oppressive, nightmarish quality of a film that preys on your anxieties.
There is a discernable three-act structure to the film and while it doesn’t always feel totally cohesive, this lack of cohesion actually amplifies the unsettling atmosphere. Spending over an hour of the film following the three character’s preparation for the crime, the films meticulous and microscopic depiction of the calm before the storm is fascinating. The attention to detail in scenes depicting the purchasing of a boat (which gives the film its title) as well as the ammonium nitrate fertiliser toys with our expectations of what we expect to happen when the plan finally comes together. When it does, the it’s purposefully anticlimactic and as a result of the build-up the audience is left with the same sense of despondency and disappointment that the characters themselves feel.
The beauty of Reichardt’s film is the patience that she has for each frame. The languid style of shooting won’t suit everybody, but like a long fuse she ekes the value out of every scene and set-piece to amp up the tension. Particular highlights include waiting for potential witnesses to leave the scene of the crime and the exquisitely framed shot of the three eco-terrorists after they have fled the scene in their pickup. Apart from Harmon who seems to have enjoyed the ‘victory’, the sense of dread and regret in Josh and Dena is palpable and allowed to breathe to great effect. These long shots – as well as some beautiful tracking shots – put you in the moment, in the boat, in the car, and you feel the anguish that is spelled out on the characters’ faces.
Despite Dakota Fanning looking like a slightly grown-up version of the precocious child we all know; her performance couldn’t be further from what we know. She is virtually unrecognisable in all other ways as Dena, utterly convincing and unnervingly sexual. She’s come a long way from the likes of Fern in Charlotte’s Web and Lupita in Man on Fire, evidenced by her unflinching manipulation of feed store clerk (James Le Gros) in order to source more fertiliser. It’s an excellent, attention-grabbing performance from the young actress. The ever-dependable Jesse Eisenberg does perhaps his best Jesse Eisenberg – albeit with no sign of the awkward charm we have seen in previous roles. Josh is just a selfish, disillusioned character, unshaken in his determination to destroy the dam, but absolutely lost and translucent as a man when the job is done.
Following his brilliant work on Cold In July – albeit that he composed Night Moves after Cold in July – Jeff Grace’s score is mesmeric. The quality of the music is noticeable from the opening shots of Josh and Dena on a hydroelectric and is ever-present throughout. Echoing the films atmosphere in general, his tense and claustrophobic electronic score elevates the ominous feeling that will permeate your thoughts throughout. Much like everything else in Reichardt’s film, it toys with your anxiety and supplements the already exhausting tension.
The final shot of Night Moves is as symbolic as the first; Josh staring into the abyss, unable to see a reflection of himself anymore. What’s truly remarkable about feeling empathy for the character in this moment is that you’ve rarely felt anything at all but contempt for him throughout. Eisenberg’s shady, silent type character is the most nuanced performance we’ve seen from him and Fanning has really laid down a firm marker that she won’t be that child star that disappears into obscurity. Reichardt and Raymond’s script is tight and economic, wringing every last ounce of tension from each protracted scene. The cinematography from Christopher Blauvelt is superb – especially for a film mostly shot at night – his expert lensing capturing the elegance and beauty of the Oregon landscape.
Night Moves is released on 29th August 2014 in the UK