For a film so thematically focused on aftermath and consequence, Night Moves spends a lot of time on build-up. The meat of the movie doesn’t appear until about an hour in, well after the eco-terrorists played by Jesse Eisenberg (Josh), Dakota Fanning (Dena) and Peter Sarsgaard (Harmon) execute their violent plan. The going is slow but suitably tense up to that point.
Director Kelly Reichardt never overplays her hand in that regard; the tension feels natural, not forced. It wasn’t until deep into the second half of the movie that I realized what a waste of time the first half had been. While it starts effectively, the real message of Night Moves only comes into play after the methodical approach of the first hour has been abandoned.
Its lopsidedness aside, Night Moves is still largely a success. Reichardt and co-writer Jonathan Raymond drop us into the characters’ plan with pretty much no context. This makes those scenes all the more suspenseful. The writers then dole out exposition in tiny pieces and never force the characters explain things to the audience. Night Moves withholds over sharing information without becoming frustratingly opaque.
That’s less true of the second hour of the film when emotions take to the forefront of conversation. By no means does Reichardt’s movie crash and burn, but it does weaken significantly. This can mostly be attributed to the loss of a driving narrative force. After their terrorist plans are put into action, it’s all one long denouement. It can’t help but feel less urgent.
I hate to put such an emphasis on the negative because I really did like Night Moves. Reichardt’s direction is by far its strongest feature. She has a great way of making beautiful images from ugly subjects. Shots of branchless, stripped-down, unpleasant tree trunks are positively picturesque.
But Reichardt’s real brilliance is in what she conceals. She occasionally likes to hide the main characters in the frame when they’re out in public. Visually and narratively, the film builds and builds and builds to an explosion that we never get to see. In less capable hands, Night Moves would have been a clunky thriller about crazy environmentalists. Reichardt’s subtlety lends the film the atmosphere that is vital to its success.
The film’s other winning element is Fanning. She gets less time onscreen than she should, but she makes the most of what she has. Sarsgaard is solid but unmemorable, Eisenberg does his Eisenberg thing (with a touch of political indignation for flavor), but Fanning is the real superstar of the three.
Much like Reichardt’s direction, the young actress’ power is in her subtlety. She underplays most of her emotions and it never feels like acting. It’s a naturalistic performance, the kind people call “flat” or “wooden” because they think acting is just yelling and making faces.
The film would work better if there were more of a focus on Dena (Fanning), but her whole emotional crisis takes place off-screen. Instead, we spend the entire second half of the film with Josh (Eisenberg). He’s just not as interesting as he needs to be to justify having more screentime than Dena. Eisenberg’s performance is fine, but there’s not much to the role. His final scene with Fanning is an accurate summation of how poorly the film treats the latter in favor of Eisenberg’s shallower character.
The film’s portrayal of environmentalists is refreshingly unbiased. The main characters are terrorists, but the film doesn’t indict their ideology along with their actions. It even brings in other environmentalist characters to talk about how unhelpful their whole plan is. The film makes an intelligent decision to not be about environmentalism at all and instead focuses on how the personalities and flaws of these people manifest through their beliefs.
The lead trio does express self-righteousness about their cause. This could be viewed as a parody of liberal egotism, but the film then tears that down so fiercely (and so apolitically) that it’s excusable. Night Moves is smart enough to avoid being too partisan, and combined with Reichardt’s direction, it manages to overcome its structural problems.
Movie Verdict: Win