Night Moves (2014)Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 06/13/14 12:16:44
The trouble with too many thrillers these days is that, to put it bluntly, they aren't very thrilling. Oh sure, most of them have dashing heroes, hissable bad guys, big explosions, elaborate chase scenes and such and they all build up to some potentially cataclysmic event that is prevented in the ta-daa nick of time. However, when it comes to the elements that make for a genuinely memorable thriller--complex narratives, well-defined characters and a real sense of tension--most of these films have a tendency to crap out and the result is a lot of innocuous junk that huffs and puffs but which is nevertheless completely forgettable. Put it this way--other than the way that it wasted Keira Knightley on a role that gave her less than nothing to do, is there anything that you actually remember about the recent "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit," including its very existence?Now take a film like "Night Moves." In theory, there is very little about it that could compare to a modern-day thriller. It does not contain any easily identifiable heroes or villains, it contains no highly choreographed action set-pieces to speak of (even the central event that the entire story revolves around is represented only by a distant sound effect) and it ends on a note of haunting ambiguity instead of unabashed triumph. And yet, despite the lack of these elements--or perhaps directly because of their absence--this is one of the most tension-filled thrillers that I have seen in a while, although to reduce it to a mere genre exercise would do this quietly ambitious film a great disservice.
Jesse Eisenberg and Dakota Fanning star as Josh and Dena, a couple of young eco-warriors who are determined to make a real difference in the world while their like-minded colleagues sit around watching depressing documentaries on the destruction of the environment while munching on organic vegetables. At first, they come across as mere dilettantes regarding the cause--Dena clearly comes from money and looks just a little too neat and clean for a wanna-be radical while Josh's sneering comments about how the environment is being ruined so that people can run their iPods all the time is undercut by the huge pickup truck that he drives--but it is slowly revealed that they, along with Josh's old Army buddy Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) plan to demonstrate their commitment by blowing up a local dam with a motorboat packed with explosives.
The first half of the film follows them as they set their plan in motion by acquiring the boat and the 500 pounds of fertilizer required for the detonation without arousing suspicion and going out on the river under the cover of darkness to set the bomb off before going their separate ways. The second half deals with what occurs when they discover that rather than being a bloodless and awesome way of sticking it to the man, their actions have not only done little to advance their cause, even on a symbolic level, but have had some unintended and messy repercussions. On the one hand, Harmon is able to cooly put it all behind him with nary a qualm but on the other, Dena is feeling increasingly nervous and guilt-stricken about what she and the others have done. Caught in the middle is Josh, who is already tightly wound as it is and whose alienation to the world around him only grows stronger in the wake of the senseless act he perpetrated in the name of beliefs that he himself can barely articulate.
"Night Moves" was co-written and directed by Kelly Reichardt, the acclaimed indie filmmaker who previous works have included the heartbreaking girl-and-her-dog story "Wendy & Lucy" and the stunning low-fi Western "Meek's Cutoff." As in those earlier efforts, Reichardt is more interested in character development that in simple plot machinations and puts her focus on people living on the fringe of society and their uneasy relationships with the world around them. What makes her work so striking is the way that she observes all of her characters in an objective manner that allows viewers to make up their own minds about them without being told what to think. Of course, such a subtle approach may inspire some viewers to think that by not explicitly condemning her characters' actions, she is implicitly endorsing them. That could not be further from the truth--she is in no way supporting the actions of her increasingly unheroic characters--and anyone who thinks otherwise is clearly not paying attention.
The surprise here is how well Reichardt is able generate a genuine sense of tension throughout by sticking to the reality of the situation and without ever resorting to cheap cinematic tricks. Although the entire film is gripping, there are three moments that especially stand out. The first comes with Dena trying to buy 500 pounds of fertilizer (the kind that raises red flags if one tries to buy more than 10) from a store manager (James LeGros) who refuses to make the deal because she is not carrying the proper ID. The second comes during the midnight outing to plant the bomb when their escape is unexpectedly interrupted by a carload of people who have stopped at the worst possible place at the worst possible time. The last is Josh's final scene, of which I will say nothing except to note that it finds him in a circumstance that he could never have possibly foreseen and suggests that the internal rage that helped drive him to his earlier acts of misguided aggression has only grown stronger. Reichardt doesn't do anything obvious from a filmmaking standpoint in these scenes--there are no fancy camera moves or the like--other than allow them to develop in their own quiet ways but the results are absolutely spellbinding, the kind of sequences that even masters of the genre like Hitchcock or De Palma could have hardly improved upon.Of course, one person's slow burn is another person's slow and there are some viewers out there who may grown fidgety with Reichardt's deliberate sense of pacing. If the lack of overt fireworks causes them to simply skip "Night Moves" altogether, then they will be missing a powerful film experience that also offers viewers three great performances as well from the leads--Eisenberg does his most striking work since "The Social Network" and Fanning and Sarsgaard are just as memorable. Smart, subtle and compulsively watchable, this is a gripping work that tackles a complex subject without dumbing things down or smoothing out the rough edges and will continue to haunt you for days after experiencing it.
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