A trio of young radical eco-terrorists, desperate to make a meaningful statement, come together to plot to blow up an unsightly hydroelectric dam in the Pacific NorthWest that symbolises the consumerist, industrialist society, selfishly destroying natural resources, that they wish to strike against.

A high society dropout now working in a women-only New Age health spa, Dena (Dakota Fanning) has turned her back on her wealthy upbringing and embraced the extreme end of environmentalism. Boozy ex-marine Harmon meanwhile has been radicalised by his experiences overseas, has turned his military training to the construction of homemade munitions from ammonium enriched farm fertiliser. The group has no leader but their leader is very definitely intense, middle class outsider Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) who’s so radical he works on an organic farm and lives in a yurt (what could be more middle class?) but burns with rage and conviction, believes the end justifies the means.

Despite some last minute hitches, the group pull off their attack in spectacular fashion. But when they discover their symbolic act of grandstanding protest had very real casualties (a camper sleeping on the riverbank is drowned), suspicion, guilt and conscience split the group, forcing the increasingly paranoid Josh to take extreme, murderous action…

Far less interesting or as complex as last year’s The East, there’s a nice moral ambivalence and noirish atmosphere to Kelly Reichardt’s latest feature Night Moves (the title’s even borrowed from Arthur Penn’s seminal ‘70s neo-noir) which sees her drift along, observing without overtly judging a group of radical environmentalists as they plot and carry out an act of eco-terrorism. It’s very nearly two thirds of a good film; the planning and execution is low-key yet tense, the scene where their plan almost unravels as Fanning attempts to buy enough material to blow up a dam is almost unbearable. Is the salesman, played by James Le Gros, on to her? Is he suspicious of why she wants to buy so much fertiliser? Is he just a stickler for the rules, insisting she present the appropriate identification? Or is he just an old-fashioned sexist? It may even be one of the most thrilling scenes you’ll see this year. But it’s just a scene where someone tries to buy fertiliser. Every interaction in the film drips with suspicion and threat whether it’s the group interacting with the world around them (buying a boat, chatting to a drunk at a campsite, a chance encounter in a diner with a former prison buddy) or the internal divisions that gnaw at them.

Where the film falls down however is in its last third as the aftermath of their grand statement proves to have a human cost and guilt and recrimination tear the group apart, Jesse Eisenberg proving once again that he makes a shitty, self-serving, untrustworthy friend. As the idealistic Dena, Fanning is charismatic and bright and obviously doomed the moment her principles brush up against stark reality while in what’s really just an extended cameo, Sarsgaard impresses as the Unabomber-esque reclusive bombmaker living out in the sticks. Had his character, the All-American soldier boy who is radicalised by his service and turns against the military-industrial complex, been the focus of the film Night Moves might have made a more satisfying, intelligent piece of cinema.

Instead the focus of Reichardt’s film is the bland, intense, twitchy outsider Josh played in a stunning original piece of stunt casting by bland, intense, twitchy outsider Eisenberg. Whatever tension and goodwill Night Moves had built up is largely dissipated as Eisenberg comes over all Raskolnikv descending into a personal hell of suspicion, doubt and paranoia, the film hobbled by Josh/Jesse’s nervy unlikability.

Beautifully shot and composed, Reichardt’s Night Moves is yet another portrait of alienated outsiders from one of independent cinema’s most interesting voices.


VERDICT: [rating=3]

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