Night Moves ★★★★

I jotted down some notes about this movie while at work, so I figured I might as well transcribe them here:

This is a bleak movie. A muted, narrow terrorist thriller. It contains exactly two acts of violence, both represented obliquely. But the anticipation of or fallout from these acts permeates every remaining second. These are three characters who are going to do something—who, before long, have done something, the end result of meticulous planning. That fact about them informs their behavior, strains their relationships, controls their lives.

On its surface, this is a story about activism; it immerses itself in the question of how to change the world for the better. But you'd never mistake it for agitprop or a social problem drama. It actually reminds me more of Bresson's The Devil, Probably, where environmental desolation exacerbates the human variety; where they're both symptoms of living in the same diseased era. The process that Kelly Reichardt documents so methodically—buying the boat, buying the fertilizer, camping near the dam—is the perpetrators' means of hunting for an existential solution. It's a terminally flawed answer to the quandary of "What can we do?" It's a step up from their compatriots' impotent rhetoric, but it's still worse than useless, because the 21st century is a no-win situation.

Significantly, the film begins after the plan has been designed, so it elides any heated discussion as well as the origins of this terrorist cell. It's only interested in the execution. Long-ish takes, sporadic POV shots, rhythmic and angular back-and-forths: Reichardt and d.p. Christopher Blauvelt build the film with a limited-by-design toolbox that fosters an illusion of objectivity while coiling tightly around the viewer's nerves. Focus pulls indicate the intended objects of audience sympathy. Framing within doors and windows suggests a rectangle-dominated world of gazes and circumscription. (Someone could always be watching, as the grim ending reminds us.)

Many of these tension-amplifying techniques call Psycho to my mind, though Reichardt's less perversely gleeful than Hitchcock as she submerges her subjects into their collective nightmare. Nor, I should add, is she merely telling a crime thriller for its own gripping sake. She's deeply invested in these rural Oregon spaces: windy forests, mountain roads, rivers, community farms; the exact same landscapes whose exploitation these fugitives are protesting. (Which makes the ending especially ironic: Jesse Eisenberg's Josh, told to disappear, flees not into the woods but into a northern California strip mall.)

While this may be a "serious" movie (arid, foreboding), I still remember laughing a lot, sometimes nervously. Even the most white-knuckle sequence, with the conspirators lurking in a canoe, waiting for a stranger's car to leave, evoked a couple frustrated chuckles. (I wonder if that wasn't itself partly a nod to Psycho's intermittently sinking car.) Another bit of anxious comedy: the terrorists giving a cold shoulder to a fellow camper who just wants to chat. As in Meek's Cutoff, the characters' most basic aspirations turn out to be pointless to a comic degree.

So Reichardt does flirt with dark Hitchcockian humor, even if it's as muffled as every other aspect of the movie. (It's as if the movie's aesthetic was "shhh!") Like, hell, those colors—grays, browns, murky greens, like the countryside's clad in camo. This pointed autumnal drabness extends to the characters' wardrobes, which comprise cheap, functional garments like hoodies, hats, and jackets. You might think such dampened visuals would be relaxing, but instead they act as conductors for the mistrust that crackles through the movie like static electricity, threatening to spark a fire. Reichardt and co-writer Jon Raymond pollinate the film with this unease by illustrating the hazards of outlaw life in a grid-mapped world and the double bind hypocrisies of eco-politics.

Despite the breezy, forested setting, Night Moves is pulled taut by the moral weight resting atop it. These are "good" people spurred to bad action, a contradiction that tears these crusaders up internally. Dakota Fanning's Dena is the most torn: a rich girl who loves the earth, whose open heart shines through Fanning's wide eyes. Eisenberg's the film's fulcrum; he bears a mass of fear in his heavy brow and twitchy eyes. These are not strong people. They're young, sensitive, brooding, idealistic—not tortured, exactly, but stung by the feeling that they have to do something and totally destroyed by the something they end up doing. Like I said: bleak movie.