Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves delivers as a relentlessly intense suspense story while, despite the familiar, “movie heist” tropes of its plot, being in perfect accord with the director’s notoriously sparse, quiet, observant, but tacitly explosive previous films—Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, and Meek’s Cutoff. A shuddering before/after narrative about a Portland-based eco-terrorist trio’s (Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard) plot to blow up a dam, Night Moves faultlessly strums the tune of crime-film contingency with the same relentless tension of Kubrick’s The Killing, while crucially building on Reichardt’s theme of modern day economic disparity and the problem of progressive ideals at odds with progressive action.
The opening image, of the dam in question as plotter Josh (Eisenberg) grimly looks on, shows the subduing of the natural world by human invention which has become a background banality. This young man could be weighing the ramifications of an illegal transgression he’s preparing or, saturated with exhausted melancholy, fixating on the end of the world. There’s mention of Science’s prognosis of the End a few times, but maybe it strikes the budding activists in this film with the same faith coupled with doubly-bound intangibility as the “World Vision” eschatological Christians referred to by Dena (Fanning) at an environmentalist film screening. Following the insolubility of Meek’s Cutoff, where frontier travelers trying to outrun the expanding Republic westward encounter a perplexing “Tree of Life” at the conclusion, Night Moves examines the ramifications of both ideas and actions, enveloping much of the eerie wilderness and haggard urban outposts in darkness. It’s a film with a deep social conscience that proceeds to excavate intimate Dostoyevskian layers of individual psychology, where decisive action begins. Social activism/politics and individual psychology prove to be similarly murky.