New Film 'Night Moves' Delivers Dangerous Paranoia About Environmentalists

Kelly Reichardt's film centers on a trio of misguided environmentalists who plot to destroy an Oregon dam.

Still from the movie 'Night Moves' starring Jesse Eisenberg
Photo Credit: Tipping Point Productions

What do you call a drama about three misfit environmentalists who float a plot to blow up an Oregon dam? According to director Kelly Reichardt, her nocturnally somber Night Movesis not a movie about “eco-terrorism.” Rather, she innocuously—and unsustainably—labels it a “character film.”

That slippery semantic move is a little like calling Gone With the Wind a weather report instead of a Civil War drama.

I doubt many will need a weatherman to tell which way the box-office winds will blow on Night Moves, which wheezes and gasps for two hours until it finally runs out of hot air.

In a drab, gray Pacific Northwest shaded with sickly green themes, Reichardt and her co-writer Jon Raymond sketch in their scruffy, disgruntled trio: the brooding, tree-hugging farmer Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) growing his anger on a family co-op; his eco-fatalistic teen friend Dena (Dakota Fanning), middle-class drop-out; and Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), resentful ex-Marine, ex-con and budding Unabomber. For the insufferably laconic Josh, destroying the dam will make people, um, “start thinking,” ranting on about how it’s killing “all the salmon just to run your fucking iPads.”

But none of these characters does much thinking at all, except in a soggy, simple-minded way. That their weapon of choice is a massive fertilizer bomb recoils back to Timothy McVeigh’s horrifically rank right-wing terrorism more than anything sprouting from the Greenpeace playbook.

Blanketed with a foggy indie sensibility,Night Moves barely moves, especially after the prelude, creeping along at a pace that would make maple syrup envious. Long, lingering close-ups of the taciturn yet opaque Josh alternate with agonizingly slow pans across empty landscapes that portentously shout out (“Timber!”) the trio’s rootlessness and alienation. In a movie nearly devoid of political or social acuity regarding the global environmental dilemma, Reichardt instead takes potshots at Josh’s co-op kooks, who spend their down time reading each other’s auras.

For all the cascades of natural vistas, Reichardt seems to see neither the forest nor the trees, just this parched, sensationalized plot. In the clearer light of day, we do witness an otherworldly burial ground of barren tree trunks, marooned by the dam’s reservoir, and there’s also a roundhouse jab at tourists watching The Price is Righton TV in their gas-guzzling Winnebago, totally tuning out the glorious nature outside. But despite these sharp barbs, it’s these misguided malcontents the film tosses head-first into the wood chipper.

With story turns that inch from recklessness to paranoia and betrayal, Night Moves itself betrays a shoddy sense of plot and character. It’s a redwood-long stretch to believe that the eco-savvy millennial Josh lives so off the grid he must schlep down to his local library to tap the Internet. Critically, the trio’s neo-Luddite thinking is so muddled that they fail to fathom any collateral damage from their blow against the hydroelectric empire, a clueless blunder that sucks them into a noirish whirlpool of mistrust and isolation.

No, Josh, Dena and Harmon are emotionally and geographically closer to the Unabomber and Patty Hearst than Johnny Appleseed, murderously putting Earth first over their fellow man. Instead of illuminating their psychology or relationships, Reichardt hovers relentlessly on the outside, grafting in long, banal scenes detailing their sinister procedures. Like the old saw says, the audience for Night Moves is treated like mushrooms—fed manure and kept largely in the dark.

Thomas Delapa is a film critic who has written for the Chicago Tribune and AlterNet. He teaches film at the University of Denver.

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