Night Moves is a movie by director Kelly Reichardt. Reichardt is probably one of the most distinctive auteurs in contemporary American film. Her films take up the American West as a character and subject. She also has an eye for characterization: in this film, Mark Zuckerberg (Eisenberg) becomes a creepy Raskolnikoff, Dakota Fanning becomes a believably radicalized trustafarian, and Peter Sarsgaard seems, for all intents and purposes, to be playing some version of himself. The film is arguably based on The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey. In fact, when I say arguably, I mean there’s a lawsuit arguing that it is in fact an un-licensed and unapproved adaptation.
The lawsuit shouldn’t alter the value of the film, however. I do think that it might be an adaptation; many of the key details of the plot are identical. But Reichardt’s films are not necessarily plot driven – the film takes up contemporary Oregon as its subject, like many of the other films in the director’s oeuvre. The northwest has been a place where environmentalism and radicalism have flourished, but it’s not really about environmentalism or radicalism either. The film focuses more on mood, setting, place, and ultimately, it’s what you could call a psychological thriller.
Much like Wendy and Lucy, or Old Joy, Reichardt is focused on outlining the potential disastrous tension in every day life. Where in the previous films, lives and relationships unravel due to relatively minor hiccups, here in Night Moves a plan that seems so flawlessly executed is derailed by the people involved in it, and their own failings or human-ness. This isn’t exactly revolutionary – see the Crime & Punishment reference above, or you know, The Tell-Tale Heart – but here it works to generate a thrilling tension.
One thing about Reichardt’s film making that is particularly effective is the way that she doesn’t try to force the character’s mental states onto the audience with explication. While she’ll linger Jesse Eisenberg’s brooding Josh uncomfortably, he remains inscrutable. There’s a lot coming apart, or going off the rails in his head, but it’s not always obvious what exactly that means, or where the train is headed. The landscape is even indifferent, despite the cast’s efforts to reshape it, to put it back to something more “natural.” In a rare outburst of feeling, Josh says, “You kill all the fucking salmon just so you can run your iPod every second of your life.”
But, ultimately, Sean, the farmer who Josh works for, has some of the best lines of the film. While the terrorists know that their action “Has gotta be big” to “Make people think.” Sean, the farmer knows that the action is really “all theater.”
Sean says to Josh, at a critical but distinctly low key scene in an out building of the farm among boxes of vegetables getting prepped for a CSA: “Do you know how long it took us to build this?” The farmer outlines the tensions between the desire for radical change and the desire to build something productive – terrorism tries to take a short cut to social change that rarely achieves anything but theater. This film doesn’t outline any solutions or offer any recommendations on what to do – in fact, Reichardt points to this almost right away, in an almost Shakespearean movie within a movie.
Early in the film, Josh and Dena attend a screening of an environmental documentary. Josh stands pensively brooding in the back of the room. Dena sits in the front row. The shot cuts in on the end of the film. A voice over says, “Let the revolution begin. All around the world of individual citizens must rise up to take a stand for the future, for the people, and for the planet.”
The filmmaker then fields questions. One of the audience members says that, “If you bombard people with too many horrific images it just feels like it’s too late or it’s too much to take on.”
Dena, Dakota Fanning’s character, asks, “What do you think it is exactly we’re supposed to do. Do you have some big plan.”?
The director says, “I think this one big plan thinking leads to a lot of the problems were facing. Part of the idea for me is not thinking that there’s just one big thing. I’m not focused on big plans. I’m focused on small plans. A lot of small plans.“
From there, you can see the two leads, Josh and Dena, ignoring this filmmaker’s advice, and everything unraveling. While you can see, even from this early scene, that things will unravel, you don’t know exactly how they will unravel. It’s the unraveling itself that’s compelling and interesting, and can tell us something.