Night Moves

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Release: Friday, May 30, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

You can feel it creeping in on you like a cold, dense fog. There’s a chill in the air, and although that’s just the air conditioner in the theater you’re noticing it more, for whatever reason. Your inability to sit without fidgeting in your seat for longer than a moment’s notice is a testament to the nerve-shattering apprehension and suspense that lurks around every shady twist and turn in Kelly Reichardt’s fifth directorial effort.

Compact and light on dialogue, Night Moves spells out a menacing cautionary tale about three environmental activists seeking to make a statement in their local community about a certain ecological issue. The film’s trio — comprised of Josh (Jesse Eisenberg in what might be considered a temperature tester for his villainous turn in 2016. . .), Dena, a literal independent who has severed all ties with friends and family (an excellent Dakota Fanning) and an ex-Marine, Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) — converge on Harmon’s backwoods trailer to form a plan of attack.

What they are planning to attack is less-than-subtly referenced in the foreboding opening. Rumors circulating that Riechardt’s film is suspenseful from beginning to end any day now will cease to be rumors because it is absolutely true.

Unfortunately, Night Moves also proves to be an incredibly difficult film to review without giving away information that would break much of the tension. The narrative is built like a house of cards, precariously balanced with each successive event hugely dependent on the events that have come before. There may be few of these but they certainly are there and are pivotal, and this is due to the emphatic, almost obsessive focus on humanity.

Josh is presented by a perhaps never-scragglier Eisenberg who quickly establishes his deeply unpleasant personality. He’s quiet, awkward and constantly on edge. He has a past that’s not made readily available and therefore his character arc endures a great level of drama that serves as the movie’s main heartbeat. Barring a significant event, Night Moves focuses primarily on this character and how his actions shape his present and future, with the emphasis largely on the latter. With a deeply unsettling performance from the former Facebook magnate, the film remains compelling despite a clear lack of major dramatic occurrences, a fact which is easily forgotten just as much as it may become noticeable in other places.

Fanning’s character is similarly disturbed and frustrated by a world which she largely disagrees with. Her part in this mission signifies a chance to make her mark as well. While the film’s characters don’t really get along, they strangely bond over this weekend outing which includes a motorboat (with the film’s title painted on its bow), a flat water canoe, and 500 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer. Just your typical quiet night on the lake, really.

In addition to maintaining the perfect blend of restless/resting camera angles and anxiety-inducing imagery, Riechardt manages to divide her film beautifully into two distinct tonal halves: that of everything pre-mission and that of everything post. In the first we experience a steady build-up of tension mostly generated from trying to figure out what it is these angsty individuals are up to. Once that quickly becomes clear, there’s something of a teeth-clenching  transition into a second half whose tension is comparatively unbearable. It wasn’t exactly comfortable during everything leading up until here, but expecting it to get any better as things progress is the same as being in hell and asking them to turn the heat down.

It’s hard calling these characters likable (this possibly explains why the film hasn’t taken as well with general audiences as it has with critics) but the nagging thought that these characters start to carry with them, effectively becomes your cross to bear as well. There is a desperate longing to rewind the clock and undo what has been done. The reality is too brutally obvious that this cannot be accomplished.

Night Moves may not sport the most affable cast of characters and some of its thematic presentation is rather overt, but your inability to stop watching things spiral out of control speaks even more to the quality of its construction of both story and atmosphere. Without the involvement of overly theatrical elements — sci-fi/supernatural etc — Night Moves may stay in the shadows a lot but it always remains steeped in reality.

Through unflinching bleakness Riechardt is able to assess the true cost of extreme points of view and what happens to misplaced idealism once its challenged. Her intriguing film is a documentation of human beings making horrendous decisions while having only the best intentions at heart.

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4-0Recommendation: The film may be a little prickly for some as it can be hard to empathize with these hardened individuals. Strangely, though, empathy isn’t the desired emotion Riechardt is going for here. If anything it’s the opposite. If you’re seeking out a compelling and consistently tense drama, Night Moves delivers and delivers big.

Rated: R

Running Time: 112 mins.

Quoted: “One person. . .that’s all it takes.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com