Thursday, June 19, 2014

Green and Red: Kelly Reichardt's Night Moves

Dakota Fanning and Jesse Eisenberg in Night Moves

Night Moves, which Kelly Reichardt directed from a script she wrote with Jonathan Raymond, has been described as a thriller, and I guess that it is, though it is a largely intellectualized thriller of ideas, with a minimum of action and suspense that’s undercut by the fact that it’s never hard to guess where the story is going. What saves it from being numbingly conceptual is the way the principal actors draw you into their twisted states of mind and the clammy heat they generate together. Jesse Eisenberg plays Josh, an environmentalist who works on a sustainable co-op in Oregon. No longer satisfied with the long-range, practical tactics for preserving the environment that are practiced by the co-op head, he’s planning to blow up a hydroelectric dam.

His co-conspirators are Dena (Dakota Fanning), a rich girl who’s bankrolling the project, and Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), an ex-marine and ex-con who knows his way around explosives. (Their weapon of choice is a boat named “Night Moves.” The movie has no connection to Arthur Penn’s 1975 private-detective movie Night Moves, or the Bob Seger song of the same name—which, in turn, had no connection to Penn’s movie, even though they came out within a year of each other. As Greil Marcus noted back in 1976, Seger must have seen the film and realized that that would be a great title for just about anything.)

For most of the film, the nuances of these characters’ alienation from society, and the different degrees to which their idealism has screwed up their moral compasses, create a quiet, mesmerizing hum on the screen. As Josh, Eisenberg simmers with the high-minded, angry self-righteousness that has become a specialty of his—except that Josh is less articulate (or at least less vocal) than previous characters he’s played, which gives his fury a combustible canned-heat quality. At first glance, Dena seems callow and opaque and a little petulant, but Fanning slowly teases out her insecurity and her longing to be part of something bigger and more meaningful than her parents’ money, until everything she says and does seems touching.

Peter Sarsgaard in Night Moves
And Sarsgaard’s careless, casually duplicitous Harmon is smug in a jaded, self-interested way that, by contrast, puts the younger people’s na├»ve smugness in the best possible light. The tensions between these three are always compelling, as is the contrast between their small-mindedness and the natural beauty of the woodsy Oregon locations they’re prepared to go to war over, for what good their presence in them seems to be doing for their souls. There are also a couple of strikingly charged scenes between Josh and the head of the co-op, who regards eco-terrorism as “theater,” and a daringly extended scene with James Le Gros as the manager of a farming-supply store; Dena digs in her heels and slowly wears down his resistance to selling her the fertilizer she needs for a bomb.

In making a film that reveals the short-sightedness and congealed hatefulness of eco-terrorism—even as it sympathetically conveys the frustration that makes people with good intentions and high ideals consider turning to violence—Reichardt is also challenging the audience that, in the last few years, has held her up as one of the greatest filmmakers working today. I liked Reichardt’s first movie, the scrappy road movie River of Grass (1994), but she lost me with the string of highly acclaimed, politically mournful films she began to turn out a dozen years later, starting with Old Joy, a terminally depressed, plotless look at a couple of old friends who embark on one last, monosyllabic camping trip together, to the accompaniment of Air America radio reports; it perfectly captured the mood of liberals in the wake of Bush’s re-election, but capturing that mood is about all it did. (She followed that up with Wendy and Lucy, an indie tearjerker whose level of narrative and political sophistication can be summed up thusly: “You may not care about homeless people because you think of them as a bunch of crackheads hitting you up for spare change, but what if they were more like Michelle Williams, and she had a nice doggie?”)

The producer Edward Pressman took legal action against the production at one point, claiming that the script—which Reichardt wrote with Jonathan Raymond, who’s been her collaborator on all her features since Old Joy—was a naked rip-off the 1975 Edward Abbey novel The Monkey Wrench Gang. Abbey’s novel is actually a major source of inspiration to radical environmentalist groups like Earth First; in fact, it provided the inspiration for the term “monkey wrenchers.” The novel was a giddy celebration of the use of violent sabotage against the forces of industrialization and environmental rapists, while Reichardt is using radical environmentalism as a metaphor for the ways idealism can lead to reckless bloodshed. (Pressman may be touchy about the fact that a book that once seemed like a sure shot for a hit movie version will probably never be filmed now that what was once an adventure fantasy with an environmental political edge would now be seen as a pro-terrorism movie.)

Reichardt is almost as high-minded as her own characters, which may have helped her get inside their heads and illuminate their inner conflicts, though there are still times when it works against her as a film artist. Night Moves makes an effort to deepen in its final third, but it also grows more rickety, because Reichardt needs to flex muscles that she’s never learned to use. She’s so practiced at her brand of minimalism that she can get a fair amount of crackle into a dialogue scene or just a long shot of Jesse Eisenberg glowering at the woods, but a climactic confrontation scene that turns violent is so slipshod and slack that including it in the final edit seems almost self-congratulatory, as if the director were saying, “I don’t know how to stage and edit a scene like this because I have bigger things on my mind, and you should have finer concerns than to want to find a scene like this entertaining.” The idea that the scene would be more horrifying if the audience could be made to feel complicit in the violence must be as far from her way of thinking as the idea that a well-intentioned plan could go horribly wrong is unlikely to occur to her protagonists, until it’s too late. Night Moves is the strongest movie she’s made yet, but there’s still something of an arts lab experiment about it, from a university that would never dream of letting its subscription to The Progressive lapse. But the awful, lost look on Jesse Eisenberg’s face at the end is more likely to haunt the memory than anything in Godzilla.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

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