Kelly Reichardt is one of my favorite American directors. She makes beautiful, intelligent and glancing movies that are almost impossible to predict. Those are, obviously admirable and viable qualities in an artist, but not necessarily welcome by an audience.
I have sharp and distressing memories of seeing her previous film, the extraordinary Meek's Cutoff, with both a festival audience and a commercial one, and both times the crowd was left mystified, even angry, with how that film ended.
Her movies typically invite you in but then hold you off. Her films meditate on friendship and desire and are built on familiar movements that continually find ways to surprise. Her movies are after something almost impossible to develop dramatically—the ineffable, the unspoken—so the rhythms are deliberately off-kilter, or denied a forward kick.
That desire to work through complicated themes, in a muted or downbeat style, walls off any easy or readily available emotional connection. So even having recognizable actors (like Michelle Williams, the star of her two previous features), Reichardt has never had a following to match her achievements.
Her new movie, Night Moves, is her fifth feature, and it is playing around the country after premiering last fall at Venice and Toronto. The movie is the closest since her first-rate debut, River of Grass, made twenty years ago, of a conventional story. All of her movies are tethered to genre—the Western, the road movie, the couple on the run—and then spiked, or subverted from within.
Like its subject, Night Moves is marked by its own subterfuge and furtive qualities. The title is a conscious doubling of the identically named 1975 Arthur Penn film with Gene Hackman and Jennifer Warren. Like the Penn movie, the new film is suffused with an annihilating sense of entrapment and quickly escalating paranoia. With its echoes of Ernest Hemingway’s great For Whom the Bell Tolls, the plot is slippery, morally and otherwise, rejecting psychological realism in conveying an upbraided idealism gone berserk.
Three very different operatives, radical in belief and practice, make their disillusionment explicit in the meticulous plot to blow up a hydroelectric dam in Oregon. The first part tracks the planning, and the second studies its aftermath. Reichardt wrote the script with her talented collaborator Jon Raymond. The filmmakers largely eschew motivation and intent, shaping the story, especially visually, around process, behavior and action.
Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), who works at a farm collective, is the operational and command leader. Dena (Dakota Fanning), a young woman of privilege, subsidizes the intricate action. Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) is a former marine who is coveted for his expertise and facility with explosives.
In the opening movements, Reichardt deftly establishes a feeling of unease and disorientation, visually conveyed through weather and the rugged, pockmarked landscape, like a remarkable tracking shot following a young kid on a bicycle as the camera swings, floats and suddenly drops. Incrementally, the story, viewed through fragments and isolated actions, comes into sharper focus.
The planning is built around forms of acquisition as the three principal characters accumulate the necessary materials, such as a boat Josh and Dena buy off an unsuspecting private dealer. In the most riveting sequence, Dena is tasked with carrying out the negotiations to purchase a vast quantity of ammonium nitrate fertilizer from a skeptical factory salesman (the great James Le Gros). The scene is a marvel of body language, Fanning’s expert mix of authority and flirtation countering each of the man’s pointed inquiries until she finally wears him down.
These movements build to the eerie and remarkably sustained centerpiece that climaxes with the appalling act of ecological sabotage. Reichardt brilliantly shifts between the players and their environment, the velvety dark night interrupted by bursts of light, as she lightens the tension with stabs of humor, like a garrulous backpacker who wanders into their mix. The operation, no matter how well planned, is fraught with complication and nearly scuttled after the occupants of a nearby car stop to change a flat tire (“That’s not a good place to be,” Dena says).
The result, dramatically and emotionally, is indirect and quietly unsettling, the brutal and messy denouement heard more than seen. The action signifies not the end but a heightened phase of profound uncertainty as the three participants experience different levels of guilt, remorse and desperation to cover up their involvement.
Visually, Reichardt and her superb cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, map out an intricate visual pattern of surveillance: the three seated, plaintively, at a restaurant, dwarfed by a large wall painting; a reverse angle shot from the perspective of the interior of a motor home capturing their entrance to the campgrounds; the recurring use of cameras and mirrors.
As the movie subtly turns from a study of action to one of character and emotional confusion, the actors color and accentuate that deepening panic. Sarsgaard projects a wounded toughness and messy bravado and Fanning leaves teasingly open her own confusion and conflicted loyalties. (One of the best, most mysterious scenes shows how a surprise sexual encounter strains the emotional dynamics and upsets the group hierarchy.) Fanning is less vibrant and beautiful than in her other performances; she limns a vulnerability and shame reflecting the split between her ideals and their actual deliverance.
Again, the movie is weakest at articulating a convincing rationale for their behavior. Reichardt is more alive to behavior than morality or judgement. Eisenberg is the movie’s center. Not since David Fincher in The Social Network has a director so sharply and expressively utilized the actor’s idiosyncratic gestures, hesitations and pauses. No actor so skillfully navigates extremes of likeability and the self-serving. His intelligence is formidable and threatening. He’s perfect for Reichardt, given his essential instinct is one of implication.
The movie ends with two remarkable passages, a chilling confrontation inside a sauna that in its visual abstraction recalls the ending of Joseph H. Lewis’ noir classic The Big Combo and a disquieting and ambiguous coda that conjures another great Hackman film from the time of the Arthur Penn movie, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. It chillingly begets the emotional costs of surveillance and the violation of being watched.
Night Moves is all of a piece about a rot and malaise that no matter how far you flee is always there.
Images courtesy of Cinedigm.