Directed by Kelly Reichardt
In Night Moves three ecoterrorists hatch a plan to blow up a dam. The first half of the film is seen through their eyes, and the second half, after the successful demolition, looks at them from the outside. It is thus a film that neither glorifies nor demonizes their pursuit but instead examines passionate ideologies, real world compromise and even the subconscious desires that often dictate us, even as they morph into personal codes we think we’ve chosen.
The three characters are Josh, Dena and Harmon (Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard), and when they get together the plan is already well underway and the mood is thick and tense. This provides for a strong sense of doom over the entire film, both reflecting the way these characters seem to feel about the world and the way we might feel about characters with whom we empathize, knowing they’re getting themselves into trouble.
The film is so expertly crafted, with a thoughtful deliberation, surprisingly snappy dialogue and an attention to the process by which these characters construct their plan. There is no yada yada’ing of their scheme, we instead are there to watch them make certain decisions and then pursue them, such as getting into the details of how they purchase the extra fertilizer they need (bypassing various regulations) to build their bomb.
It’s quietly riveting because the stakes are so clearly established even within these smaller moments. It’s simply a well-told story and is shot beautifully, often with static portraits of the characters and their worlds. In one moment as they sail through a graveyard of chopped down trees the characters (and the camera) calmly regard the skinny trees as the sun pokes through from behind. It’s aesthetically beautiful and in line with the way the characters would view such a thing, and it’s an example of how the film takes its time to consider certain ideas and emotions even within what might otherwise be a rigidly-plotted movie.
It’s a thoughtful depiction of characters who are perhaps thoughtful in some sense but irrational in another. They undertake this plan with a sense of serenity, but the things that have pushed them to this point are more the result of madness and paranoia. Even if what they are ultimately fighting for is just, we only know them within the context of committing a crime which will not so surprisingly have unintended consequences.
The second half of the film quickly reorients us so that we are made to understand these consequences. Other people not so far removed in ideology from our three main characters read about the dam explosion and dismiss the people who did this. It’s an act of theatre, one says.
We spend most of this second half with Josh as he frets about getting caught and about another spilling the truth to the authorities. He becomes so paranoid that we’re unclear even if his angst is to be believed or if he is the one whom the others should fear.
It all leads to what at first feels like a bit of a disappointing climax, both in how sudden and simple it is, but which I think actually speaks to another theme in the film. Josh is kicked out of the collective at which he had been living for fear on the part of another that he will implicate them in the crime, and he goes to see Dena, worried she can’t handle the consequences of what they’ve done and will rat them out. He himself comes across as quite unstable, and Dena sees this too, using a rainstick to defend herself from him.
Whether he consciously means to or not, he stalks her into a nearby sauna and strangles her. He then hits the road and leaves town, an emotional mess because he doesn’t seem to understand his own actions.
Even before this moment, even before the explosion of the dam, there are moments that suggest Josh’s alienation from Dena and from Harmon as well. It all stems from a quiet moment early in the film in which Josh approaches a trailer and hears the two of them ostensibly having sex. Though he says nothing, his face reads discontent, and he wanders down a trail before stopping to look at his dirty hands, almost as if he knows these hands will do something…
So I read the film and Josh’s actions as having to do with a subconscious desire for Dena, one which he never speaks of but which nevertheless drives his actions. It is this more primal desire which he either mistakes or purposefully morphs into a different kind of code and uses to justify a whole lot of unhinged behavior.
Josh (and the others even) may think they have some grand cause, but as that other character said, it’s really just an act of theatre, and they’re each a step beyond reasonable here. For Josh he mistakes these urges and impulses as something more holy, almost like a Paul Schrader character who mistakes the voices in his head for God’s (whether in First Reformed or with the similar misreading of reality in Taxi Driver and Affliction).
The things that drive us to do certain crazy things, whether noble or otherwise, might just be the result of tangled impulses and desires we can’t fully understand but can certainly act on. That’s what I think the film is about, I suppose.
The other thing is the title, taken from the name of the boat they use to house their bomb. It’s also the title of a 1975 Arthur Penn film, a film noir which ends with the main character (Gene Hackman) staring through a window looking down into the ocean as a dear friend sinks to his death. It’s a friend he (and we) didn’t know was involved in the complicated plot, and it leaves Hackman’s character in a state of complete confusion. Nothing makes sense, but lives have nevertheless been lost.
And it seems to me that’s the same thing here. Lives have been lost, decisions made, and yet our main character can’t quite figure out why. At the end he might just realize that the things he mistook for ideological certainties are instead complete mysteries, more vague and unknown than ever before.
It’s not about the world but about the character and how he or she thinks. The world as seen in the film is just a manifestation of that character’s subjective beliefs and desires.
Up Next: X-Men: First Class (2011), Certain Women (2016), Like Father, Like Son (2013)