By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist August 30, 2013 at 5:00PM
After the acclaimed trio of “Old Joy,” “Wendy & Lucy” and “Meek’s Cutoff,” Kelly Reichardt was already proving hard to pin down. The three films that made her name (plus her lesser-known earlier works “ Ode” and “River Of Grass”) are immediately recognizable as the work of the director, but very different from each other thematically, if perhaps not formally. Whatever her next move was going to be, it was going to be interesting, but few would have predicted that it would be “Night Moves”—a crackling little suspense thriller/morality play indebted to Dostoyevsky and Hitchcock. But while it’s a left turn, it’s at least as good as the films that came before it, and still with the same recognizable DNA intact.
The film picks up, without much in the way of scene-setting, with a trio of individuals: Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), who lives on a self-sustaining eco-friendly commune, Dena (Dakota Fanning), from a wealthy background, and Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), a former Marine. Together, they’re planning to blow up a hydroelectric dam. There’s not much in the way of backstory—Reichardt simply follows the trio as they methodically make their preparations—buying a boat, obtaining fake IDs, and conning their way into 250 pounds of fertilizer. There’s an almost docudrama-like feeling to proceedings, although Reichardt avoids the tropes of that genre—the photography (again by “Meek’s Cutoff” DoP Christopher Blauvelt) is carefully composed, the editing steady and measured.
These guys aren’t messing around, and in a quietly but breathlessly suspenseful sequence, the plan comes off, seemingly without a hitch. They go their separate ways, and the focus narrows on Josh (although, actually, it’s been on him all along—it’s more that the others drop out of view a touch), as it’s revealed that a camper was sleeping out downriver of the dam, and is now missing. From there, the film shifts effortlessly into a portrait of guilt, and of the lengths that someone will go to cover their tracks.
There’s some fairly incisive discussion, albeit in passing, of the ethics of this kind of eco-terrorism, but Reichardt is more interested in using action to investigate the principles of her protagonists, and the consequences of this kind of extreme action. Josh might live off the land, but are the actions of him and his comrades making any difference? And when the shit hits the fan, is the right thing to do to give themselves up, or to do whatever it takes to for the good of the cause?
If the film works—and it really, really does—much of that is down to Eisenberg. The actor has a distinct screen persona, and will probably be associated with Mark Zuckerberg until the day he dies, but shorn of his motormouth, his assuredness and his tics, he’s a revelation here. Josh is a taciturn sort, but Eisenberg does an enormous amount with what he has, proving to be sinister and vulnerable virtually within the same breath, and expertly putting across the torment he’s going through.
It’s really Eisenberg’s film, but his co-stars make impressive impressions too. Fanning has seemed to be on her way to a truly attention-grabbing adult turn for a while, and manages it here, entirely convincing as the rich-girl-turned-revolutionary. Sarsgaard is perhaps less surprising, but he’s as solid as ever as the devil on Josh’s shoulder.
It should go without saying that with Reichardt, the environment is just as much of a character as the people. The some-way-outside-Portland setting returns to the Pacific Northwest environs of the earlier films, one being simultaneously rejuvenated (by the farming on Josh’s commune, and by implication by the bursting of the dam), and destroyed (there are haunting shots of broken trees semi-submerged by the river, soon contrasted against the hulking great man-made dam). But the filmmaker also brings it into more intimate environs, and the closing section is the most claustrophobic thing she’s made, especially a late, nail-biting sequence set in a sauna that’s reminiscent of Hitchcock and Chabrol.
It all ends on a devilishly ambiguous note that’s reminiscent of “Meek’s Cutoff”—and in many ways, this does feel like a companion piece to that film, albeit one that’s very different on the surface. The conclusion, like the rest of the film—by some distance the best thing we’ve seen in competition so far here at Venice—will be ticking around our heads for a while, and proved to be the perfect reminder that Reichardt is one of the most exciting directorial talents we have right now. [A-]