Brooding, tense, and disturbingly quiet: Night Moves feels strangely like a thriller despite its slow, steady burn. It’s like watching the last embers in a fire pit. The flames are low, yet there’s a strange power in the wood’s hypnotic, pulsing glow. The story here, written by director Kelly Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond, centers on three radical environmentalists and their plan to blow up a hydroelectric dam in Oregon. While the moral sometimes weighs a bit too heavy, the film’s style and tone command attention as the narrative drifts from a tale of self-righteous rebellion into one of nervous, self-questioning despair.
Jesse Eisenberg, who showed his ability to be both a nervous wreck and a madman in The Double earlier this spring, plays Josh. He’s a treehugger’s treehugger, and views global consumer culture with more than cold contempt. He secretly takes out cell towers and other parts of “The Grid” with his partner-in-crime/financier Dena (Dakota Fanning). We meet the two on the weekend in which they’re launching their most ambitious project yet — sailing a boatload of explosives into a dam. Despite the two being pretentious as hell, there’s something admirable in their belief that they can change the way people think through creative destruction. Josh and Dena get help on this project from a former convict named Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), and almost as soon as he’s involved, little things start to go wrong. Hardened as he is, Harmon laughs these off, but the unease created by these hiccups never fades. And after the bomb-boat detonates, the aftermath is more terrible than Josh or Dena imagined.
Still, Josh returns to his quiet life, working on a sustainable farm. He tries to play himself, but his natural shyness mutates into a paranoid and creepy silence. Eisenberg projects the shades of this metamorphosis perfectly. While watching this descent into madness, one sees that Josh is no longer concerned about saving the planet as much as saving himself. It’s especially tragic because even those around him consider his secret, ballsy action meaningless, nothing more than political “theater.” In this way the film is a powerful denunciation against the use of violence, even in a just cause. One wishes, however, that bits of the film’s dialog were stronger. Dena and Josh have such disdain for environmentalist “posers” that sometimes it’s embarrassing. Perhaps those lines are supposed to make the characters look like jerks, but they end up also lending the film the overbearing flavor of a religious moral tale. Stomaching that isn’t too hard, though. And with all pent up angst over inevitable environmental disaster, there’s a real undercurrent of sadness to tap into, which, when it bubbles to the surface, is surprisingly unnerving.
Night Moves is playing at the St. Anthony Main Theatre.