Minimalist filmmaking – an independent auteur’s best friend when implemented correctly, or a slack-jawed attempted at being different when failed. Filmmakers like Nicolas Winding Refn have mastered the art of marrying obscure storytelling with virtually no dialogue, but that’s because of a hypnotic, unparalleled visual style that tells his story through colors, filters, songs, and exploitation. Refn is able to establish conflicts, climaxes, and consequences while characters emote sparingly, as movies like Drive and Only God Forgives transfix eyes while demanding attention – minimalism at its best.
Night Moves, Kelly Reichardt’s latest film, does absolutely none of that. Frankly, Night Moves barely even registers a heartbeat, lifelessly stringing together a slew of backwoods scenery shots with Jesse Eisenberg’s never-changing face. You know, the one he makes in every movie most of the time? Well, that’s the face he’s sticking with, driving home the seriousness of this vapid eco-thriller devoid of all “thriller” aspects imaginable. Night Moves plays like some tree-hugging film student’s failed thesis about corporate America raping Mother Nature’s nurturing soul while willows weep and clouds cry polluted tears – man. Stale cinematography, unresponsive acting, and incorrigibly emotionless filmmaking make Reichardt’s watch a painstaking, sleep-inducing bore – barely resembling a constructed film.
Eisenberg plays Josh Stamos, an environmentalist looking to shake the system with his two friends Dena (Dakota Fanning) and Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard). Setting their sights on a hydroelectric dam, the trio gather enough equipment to make a homemade bomb and plan their attack, but an unexpected result stems from their actions. Can everyone keep their mouths shut long enough to avoid being arrested?
Night Moves is a black hole of nothingness – long, dragging shots that lead down bland generic trails filled with pouty faces, soul-sucking atmospheres, and absolutely zero consequential comeuppance. Reichardt’s film is a hollow husk; a failed attempt at turning some anti-overconsumption PSA into a criminal thriller. Dry scenes are played out by characters without a lick of personality, finding some trudging subgenre lurking deep beneath the depths of “mumblecore” – “real world” scenarios lacking any enthusiasm or intrigue. Night Moves shambles from start to finish like a nature-loving zombie without the ability of raising even a single hair, only made worse by filmmaking lacking enthusiasm, energy, or any sort of confident gusto – as endearing as watching the proverbial paint dry.
Jesse Eisenberg unfairly became known as a poor man’s Michael Cera when his stardom started gaining speed – a brash characterization he’s since shed – but Night Moves becomes his most stereotypically Eisenberg-y role in mere minutes. Expressing a range of emotions equivalent to a baked potato, the actor certainly never listened to his mother because his plastered face never changes an inch (you know how Mom used to warn “if you make that face too much, it’ll stay that way!”). Like an uninspired statue, lines are muttered without any reasonable infliction. Scene after scene we watch Eisenberg either sitting somberly, walking somberly or working somberly – quite honestly, Josh Stamos remains one of the most unappealing characters I’ve witnessed this year.
Dakota Fanning unfortunately suffers the same fate, albeit playing a more tortured soul, attempting to challenge Eisenberg’s nothingness with a more upbeat tempo – generating music senior citizens might listen to while attempting a nap. Fanning is given absolutely no characteristic help throughout Eisenberg’s insufferable performance, and neither seem to be given any other direction than “just be.” Fanning’s dry comedy fails over and over again, trying to humanize her corpse of a co-star, but even with Peter Sarsgaard’s more able help, every character falls into the same flatness created by Reichardt’s bland, weightless filmmaking. Honestly, none of the characters even act like they want to be there – no challenge, no passion, and certainly no interest.
Night Moves’ biggest deterrent becomes more and more obvious while whatever minuscule plot advances, as Reichardt reveals an absolutely inconsequential nature without meaning. Trust me, I’m not begging for movies to spoon feed me in any way – I absolutely love when a movie truly ties my brain in knots – but my life wasn’t altered in the least between sitting down in the theater and leaving immediately as credits displayed the names Eisenberg and Fanning. Night Moves simply happens, which would typically only deem a forgettable fate, but considering an absolute lack of advancement, understanding, or any sort of investable culmination, Reichardt avoids consequence around every turn. I’ll call it the “Tyrannosaurus Effect” – every time danger looms, everyone just stops what they’re doing, remains completely still, and holds that pose until whatever possible suspenseful device simply goes away. And what do we learn as it all ends? Frankly, nothing – the single worst, most frustrating note a movie can go out on.
Movies are supposed to tell a story – create drama, incite emotional reactions, grow characters, and leave a lasting impression. Night Moves manages to ignore everything that makes cinema a connective experience, which I’m sure will be adored by the hipster crowds for some reason – but boasting the personality of a pet rock, Reichardt’s latest sits in the corner like an angsty teen and doesn’t care if you enjoy what you’re watching. “Here’s a movie, things happen, watch it or don’t, I couldn’t care less” – exactly what Night Moves speaks through daunting long-takes, brutally underwhelming pacing, zero emotional coring, and a disgustingly uncaring presentation. Minimal effort might be what kids think is cool these days, but Eisenberg’s coldest glares amount to nothing but a bag of failed, falsified drama. I think I missed the Toronto International Film Festival memo that stated everyone was supposed to love this indie darling, because Night Moves will certainly be among one of my least favorite movies of 2014.