From the reunited comrades straining to reconnect in the wilderness of Old Joy to the young woman with a dog and a broken-down car trying to move north in search of work in Wendy and Lucy to the desperate homesteaders lost in the unsettled West of Meeks’ Cutoff, Kelly Reichardt’s characters are restless travelers the lot, folks without homes in any consoling sense, every one an outsider of some sort, marginalized by economics, geography, gender, ideology, searching for a place to call their own in an unfriendly United States. Reichardt herself seems a rogue wanderer in American movies, incorporating elements of familiar genres or styles (the western, the road movie, neo-realism) while largely refraining from generic tropes or token resolution, working with exceedingly limited resources along the industry’s peripheries, even when employing some of its famous actors. Collaborating for over a decade now with writer Jonathan Raymond, she’s favoured small stories in which drama is restrained and political commentary conveyed solely through suggestion.
The trio of radical environmentalists conspiring to sabotage a hydroelectric dam in Night Moves are in certain respects direct descendants of Reichardt’s past protagonists, yet they inhabit a narrative in which the political is now thrust right to the foreground, and Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), Dena (Dakota Fanning) and Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) are far more aggressive than their predecessors, steering, or at least attempting to steer the story, rather than letting the story steer them—they are, after all, activists. If you’ve seen Reichardt’s films you probably have some suspicions regarding which direction her own politics lean toward, yet Night Moves is anything but romantic about its characters Leftist convictions. The chilling final act, which resembles a Kieslowski-esque tale of moral consequence, finds self-preservation trumping natural preservation.
Though he’s young, Josh’s idealism seemed wilted to begin with, and Eisenberg is an iceberg, keeping Josh’s inner world sealed within an emotional fortress whose formation may have more to do with frustrations over personal powerlessness than frustrations over the powerlessness of his fellow man or animal. We might start out on Josh’s side, but by the end we don’t want to be anywhere near him or his colleagues, whose myopia, not to mention sexism, belies their ostensible progressiveness.
So Night Moves is no manifesto. It is not about heroism or even good intentions. It is very much about plots, in both senses: the story tracks the hatching of a plot with procedural precision, and the film is by far the most plotted of all Reichardt’s works. Which might make it more accessible to a broader audience and, perhaps, less appealing to longtime admirers of her characteristically austere modus operandi. I’m not entirely sold on the climax, and I don’t know that Reichardt proves herself a master of fight scenes, but I think Night Moves is a smart move for her as an artist, challenging her comfort zone—and ours. There is no one to root for, other the salmon, the forests and the farmers. There’s a pervading feeling of helplessness and entrapment, and it’s earned. Reichardt is one of the finest, most resourceful directors working anywhere. She seems to me incapable of betraying the integrity of her beliefs, and regardless of what tack she takes or how much she bends to genre dictates, she’s not about to let us enjoy a clean getaway.