Night Moves is the kind of plodding, thoughtful film that is immediately going to turn a lot of people off because of its minimalist dialogue and stoic protagonist. I get that; a lot of people need something to be happening in every shot, and this isn’t a movie for them. However, once one gets acclimated to the slower pace, it’s easy to get caught up in the raw tension that the film evokes, leaving the audience in a constant state of guessing what’s going to happen next. One critic called the film “almost Hitchcockian,” and I think that’s a fairly apt description.
This is the story of three environmentally-mind young people who only refer to each other by their first initial: J (Jesse Eisenberg), D (Dakota Fanning), and H (Peter Sarsgaard). They purchase a boat and seem to be planning something big to do with it. As more and more information is revealed through dialogue, we as the audience realize that this isn’t a fishing trip; they plan to blow up a dam. And, surprisingly enough, the film makes us sympathetic to their cause. They’re only concerned about the harm that the damn is doing to the salmon population, and they want to make a statement that people need to use less energy so that the dam is not necessary for their consumptionist needs. It’s a fair enough point, and it’s easy to see how they’re pushed to the point of eco-terrorism in a world that doesn’t seem to care.
And the first half of the film focuses on the tension of covertly preparing their illegal deed, whether it’s buying enough explosive fertilizer or navigating a populated park with a boat-sized bomb, the risk these folks face is eternally palpable. Jesse Eisenberg pulls off a surprisingly understated performance with only subtle indications to his inner thoughts, and Peter Sarsgaard carries the bravado of a man who may not actually know as much about what he’s doing as he says. The real breakout performance, though, is Dakota Fanning, who comes off as confident and stalwart at first, but when the shit hits the fan, she begins to slowly crumble.
And shit does hit the fan, for the second half of the film shifts tone once their deed has been carried out. The consequences of the terrorist act suddenly become very real, and the guilt that begins to consume the characters becomes overwhelming. Director Kelly Reichardt smartly limits the perspective to J for the remainder of the film, emphasizing the isolation and fear inherent with keeping their crime secret, as well as having to worry whether his compatriots will crack under the same pressure that he feels. This culminates in a climax that at once seems shocking, yet inevitable.
The film’s epilogue is bit strange and unnecessary in light of the climax, but it’s probably unfair to judge the entirety of the film based on the oddness of the last five minutes. Overall, Night Moves is a haunting tale of dramatic tension and guilt. The purpose is not to watch the characters in motion, but to feel the weight of the few moves they make in a life-altering course of events. Even when they realize their actions caused more damage than they knew, the characters remain sympathetic, which is amazing considering that they are in fact the villains. Night Moves is well worth your time.
Who knew that Dakota Fanning could act? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.