A film review by Craig J. Koban September 5, 2014 


2014, R, 112 mins.


Jesse Eisenberg as Josh Stamos  /  Dakota Fanning as Dena Brauer  /  Peter Sarsgaard as Harmon  /  Alia Shawkat as Surprise  /  Logan Miller as Dylan  /  Katherine Waterston as Anne  /  James Legros as Feed Factory Clerk  /  

Directed by Kelly Reichardt  /  Written by Jonathan Raymond and Reichardt

NIGHT MOVES is an uncommonly effective eco-themed psychological thriller that gets by considerably on its less-is-more aesthetic.  

Directed by Kelly Reichardt (MEEK’S CUTOFF and WENDY & LUCY), the film deals with the plot of a trio of radical environmentalists that wish to blow up a hydroelectric dam, but NIGHT MOVES is not just about the acts of these eco-terrorists.  Reichardt places less emphasis on the standard accoutrements of the thriller genre (namely action) and instead hones in on the character dynamics.  This methodical slow-burn approach to the material serves the film resoundingly well, which only heightens the sense of overall anxiety and unease throughout the story. 

More importantly, NIGHT MOVES poses some rather tantalizing questions regarding the nature of true righteousness and what it means when obsessive activism turns seedy and dangerous.  The film introduces us to some very determined and well meaning, but ultimately flawed and potentially deranged individuals that feel that technology has completely overridden the natural order of things.  The opening of the film sets up things masterfully: Josh and Dena (Jesse Eisenberg and Dakota Fanning respectively) are two impassioned activists that are attending a modest environmental documentary.  There’s the obligatory Q&A with the film’s director after the film’s conclusion, during which time the message that’s sent is that a confluence of “small action” is what’s needed to change the planet for the better.  Josh and Dena, alas, have far loftier ambitions. 

“Small” is simply not in their vocabulary.  Josh and Dena have plotted a course of action that would target a rather large dam located along Oregon’s Santiam River.  Their partner in eco-crime is Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), a former Marine that’s trained in the art of being a loner and a fairly cool-headed de facto leader of the trio.  The film is leisurely and takes its time establishing the minutia of their plan in ways that most other films wouldn’t: we see them purchase a speedboat, buy the necessary explosive ammonium nitrate fertilizer to make the explosion happen, and prepare the explosives with a timer.  Other films would be more impatient and want to get to the night of their “big plan,” but NIGHT MOVES commands our attention – and builds suspense – in the build-up to that very event.   



The first half of the film is a meticulously engineered build-up, whereas the second half deals with the attack on the dam itself and its aftermath, which the trio feels is an ultimate act of virtuous courage as they wage war on hydroelectric companies that they feel are tainting and spoiling the natural world.  Reichardt has a field day in showing what transpires at the dam, utilizing some evocatively understated night photography by Christopher Blauvelt, who gives the film a dark, foreboding sheen of menace.  Key to the aforementioned “less-is-more” approach is the very fact that Reichardt actually shows the bombing of the dam not with high tech visual effects and pyrotechnics, but rather relays the event off screen with an ominous sound track that bellows in the distance as Josh, Dean, and Harmon race away from the scene.  Oddly enough, not seeing the bombing – and seeing the somewhat nonchalant reaction to it by the trio – makes it more unsettling and frightening. 

The rest of NIGHT MOVES deals with the thorny aftermath of the bombing, and if the film were to have a fault then it would be that it stumbles into narrative conventionality during this section (the third act never quite equals the startlingly well oiled course of events that typified the first two thirds of the film).  Nonetheless, Reichardt still maintains steadfast devotion to her characters throughout, and is greatly assisted by the resoundingly strong performance triumvirate of Eisenberg, Fanning, and Sarsgaard.  Eisenberg in particular is a wonderfully nuanced talent that knows how to sort of effortlessly dial into his character’s inherent sinister edge without overplaying or overselling it.  He plays Josh as a man driven by zealot-like action that nonetheless seems equally tormented by the ramifications of his actions.  Fanning is equally strong as Dena, who’s a bit more reserved and laid back than Josh, but remains fanatically committed to her cause.  Sarsgaard shows up in a somewhat disappointingly limited role, but he has such an incredible knack for playing venomous antagonists that somehow manage to be charming and inviting at the same time. 

Perhaps the finest thing that NIGHT MOVES achieves is that it never once begs us to (a) like these characters, (b) judge their actions and (c) validate their environmentalism and their cause.  Reichardt is a smart filmmaker that respects her audience enough to understand that films like this don’t require easy answers and easier dramatic payoffs.  Josh, Dena, and Harmon are not presented as one-note, moustache-swirling villains.  There are, more or less, presented as real flesh and blood people with real passions and real motivations that are spawned from their noble-minded sense of wanting to change their planet for the better.  What makes NIGHT MOVES so intoxicatingly and richly challenging is that these characters are so fastidiously driven by their causes that they can’t see their actions for the potential harm – literal, physical, and emotional – they could cause.  The film wisely pontificates on the truism that people never feel their actions as morally and ethically wrong when they feel in their hearts that it’s…right. 

It’s a small shame that the film builds towards a somewhat preordained conclusion (you just know that all of the internalized web of lies that the increasingly restless Josh keeps bottled up is going to eventually explode and have dire ramifications on his co-conspirators).  The film’s ending –which might be too abrupt and frustratingly ambiguous for some – is, though, kind of brilliant for capturing how once bright minded people driven by a cause can turn coldly detached and dangerous without them even realizing it.  All in all, NIGHT MOVES is to be appreciated as a suspense film that derives suspense from its observational details of its doomed characters.  It’s Hitchcockian in how it never wants to rush us towards its big climatic payoffs, but rather wishes to toy and manipulate us on the nerve-jangling journey towards it.  That’s what makes NIGHT MOVES so singularly smart, crafty, and thought provoking.

  H O M E