A film like Night Moves inevitably attracts various attempts by critics to impose some sort of genre classification on it. The problem is that like director Kelly Reichardt’s previous work, Meek’s Cutoff, the movie is so much more interested in its characters than its generic subversions that discussions of genre reduce the material to a level well beneath where it deserves to be discussed. Night Moves can and is being labeled a thriller, a heist movie, a political commentary, and to an extent it is these things, but above all it’s an examination of individuals who seek to carry out enormous levels of destruction and the psychological effects these sorts of actions may render within their perpetrators.
The central character in the film is Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), a reclusive organic farm employee who collaborates with two other eco-minded radicals to blow up a hydro dam. Early on we see one of these co-conspirators, Dena, played by Dakota Fanning, questioning the effectiveness of an activist filmmaker’s environmentalist efforts, unsatisfied with the notion that many small actions will produce more results than one grand gesture. Even as they meet up with their third cohort, an ex-marine named Harmon played by Peter Sarsgaard, this scene provides the closest thing to a rationale behind their scheme.
It’s natural to be curious about the backstories of these characters, how they came to be radicalized, how they even met each other, what the nature of Josh and Dena’s relationship really is and how their previous plots went down, but this movie is solely focused on the present. It follows a slow pace, the kind of deliberateness that makes you feel every bit of time that passes. Time itself becomes a supremely important element of the story—not only is there a sense of urgency to their plan, the kind of urgency that requires a huge amount of fertilizer to fuel their explosive device, but in the film’s pivotal sequence involving the dam itself, time becomes an ever-apparent factor in their movements and decisions, made visible for the characters and for us by numbers on a clock.
Revealing too much of the story may hinder a person’s appreciation for the experience of the movie, so I’ll try to proceed in vague terms, but let it suffice to say that the fact that the audience can only experience these events in the present, that there’s no backstory, no explanation for what they’re doing, no clear rationale provided, all emphasizes the frame of mind these characters are in. They’re dead set on carrying out their mission, and as the film demonstrates, they gave little thought to the many possible outcomes of their actions, and are utterly unprepared for what happens as a result of their decisions. A key line is spoken by Josh to Dena, that is as much directed to the audience as to her character, along the lines of “What did you expect was going to happen?”
Of course, all these characters cope with their choices in different ways. Given his primary role, Eisenberg stands out the most, and his work here is surely some of the finest we’ve ever seen from him. He manages to express the character’s well-intentioned but poorly thought through motivations before and after the scene at the dam, taking his trademark blend of nervousness and bravado to new, at times terrifying heights. If there was any doubt about Dakota Fanning’s transition into daring young adult roles, her turn as the deceptively naïve but exceedingly savvy Dena should put those doubts to rest. And Peter Sarsgaard is one of the most reliable young character actors working today. As Harmon, he is terrific at capturing the spirit of a disgruntled man bent on executing dramatic action but with little attention to detail.
While the film has an undercurrent of suspense throughout most of its duration, it’s not using tension the way most standard thrillers do. That is, it’s an absolutely gripping piece of work to watch, hard to take your eyes off of and equally hard to slow your heart rate while watching, but the fear we have for the characters is driven largely by internal factors, primarily the fear of getting caught. And this is a fear that never leaves, the sense being that it’s something that will stay with these individuals long after the story of Night Moves concludes. The impression of suspense that you can never escape is more than a genre. It’s madness.
Night Moves is riddled with suspense, but its strength comes from its characters whose moral idealism is tested by unforeseen consequences.