Off the Grid and Against the Wall, by Matt Warren
I know there are a lot of sensitive souls out there in the Battleship Pretension readership. So if you’re easily upset by extreme descriptions of hippie-on-hippie violence, please consider this your trigger warning. You will not escape this review without a frank, sphincter-puckering investigation into the dark heart behind the polar-fleece outerwear of the granola-crunchy damned. And yes, we’ve seen Film Noir reinvented through countess microgenres. But we’ve never seen something quite like Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves—which single-handedly invents a brand new type of crime thriller I’d like to officially dub “Teva Noir.”
First things first: Night Moves is not a Bob Segar biopic. Wait—don’t hang yourself yet! Here’s the actual plot: millions/billions-coolness-distinction-enthusiast Jesse Eisenberg plays Josh, an introverted young radical environmentalist living on an organic farm co-op deep in the woods of rural Oregon. Not content to simply sit around in his yurt all day DM’ing comely greenthumbs on FarmersOnly.com, Josh teams up with Dena (Dakota Fanning), an idealistic rich-girl runaway marking time as an assistant at a women’s day spa, to plot some domestic terrorism shennanigoats aimed at the local hydro dam. To do so, they enlist the help of Josh’s old pal Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), a mischievous ex-con with the criminal know-how to make their explosive, eco-friendly dreams a reality.
Essentially a three-hander, the film follows Eisenberg, Fanning, and Sarsgaard as they methodically plan out and execute their plot to 9/11 their most hated enemy: an ecologically unsound dam fucking up trout migration on an unnamed Oregon river. It’s a simple plan, and nobody is supposed to get hurt. Besides, they can all trust each other, right? Spoiler alert: ka-fucking-boom! Things go haywire. Loyalties are tested. Tough decisions are made. And yes: people suffer.
Moves is Kelly Reichardt’s fifth feature and third consecutive collaboration with screenwriter Jonathan Raymond. The duo’s last movie, Meek’s Cutoff, was in my Top 10 of 2011. But if Meek’s was Little House on the Prairie by way of Stanley Kubrick, Moves is more like The Monkey Wrench Gang as interpreted by Alfred Hitchcock. It’s also a return to the literary, wounded-woodsman minimalism of earlier Reichardt efforts like Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, both of which explored the difficulty of trying to live life like an unaccountable 19th Century drifter while unstuck in 21st Century America. You even suspect that one wrong turn down the brown clay hiking trail would put Josh, Dena, and Harmon on a direct collision course with Old Joy’s Kurt and Mark—or vice-versa.
By making her characters radical environmentalists operating outside of mainstream channels, Reichardt has provided a firm baseline to interpret Night Moves as a political fable. But I’m not oriented that way. And because I’m deathly allergic to social activism and political consciousness in all its forms, I merely processed Night Moves’ off-the-grid milieu as an interesting setting for a unique piece of genre storytelling—like setting a Western on Mars or zombie movie on a cruise ship. It’s not necessary to extrapolate anything from the film other than the visceral pleasure of its taut thriller plot. But if you want to walk through the door labeled “Politics” you totally can.
That said, as a pure thriller, how is Night Moves, exactly? Answer: it’s pretty good. The first half is better than the second. The characters’ preparation and execution of their eco-terrorist plot is great, gripping stuff guaranteed to ivory-up the knuckles; it gives the first half of the movie a propulsive narrative throughline absent from the rest of the film. Momentum sags as the characters are released back to their grow rooms, healing saunas, and detached trailer homes to sit, stew, and inevitably turn on one-another—all culminating in a violent, melodramatic ending that feels a bit off-model tonally.
I’m having a hard time placing Night Moves inside the rest of Reichardt’s stellar filmography. In some ways, it’s a step back from the bold formalism of Meek’s Cutoff. But in other ways, it feels like a conscious expansion of the filmmaker’s pet themes and fetishes into more mainstream territory. Either way, it’s a fascinating piece of work. If I had to predict where things are going, my guess is we’ll ultimately look back on this movie as a bridge between distinct phases in Reichardt’s career—her Kill Bill or Punch-Drunk Love. And I’m interested to see where this bridge goes. Here’s hoping nobody blows it up before we reach the other side.