Review: ‘Night Moves’ is a problematic but thoughtful look at eco-terrorism

Jesse Eisenberg plays an anguished eco-terrorist in "Night Moves." Credit: Cinedigm
Jesse Eisenberg plays an anguished eco-terrorist in “Night Moves.”
Credit: Cinedigm

‘Night Moves’
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

Kelly Reichardt is a liberal filmmaker whose movies deal with politics directly (the portrait of desperate poverty in “Wendy and Lucy”) and allegorically (the arrogant leader dragging people into almost certain doom in “Meek’s Cutoff”). But she’s not merely towing the party line. Her films consider the various failures of liberalism in the Bush- and post-Bush eras. Very loosely based on Edward Abbey’s “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” Reichardt’s “Night Moves” even allows for lefties to be the bad guys, at least the ones who let ideology trump sense.

Jesse Eisenberg and Dakota Fanning play environmental activists who feel their back-to-nature commune is too ineffectual to enact real change. They’re probably right, but their solution isn’t much better: Teaming up with a disheveled wiseacre (Peter Sarsgaard), they plan to bomb a dam at night, when they’re sure no innocent bystanders will get caught in their way. They’re too sure, as it turns out, and they have to find practical ways to deal with what may be, especially for crusty do-gooders, the unthinkable.

To be honest, much like its heroes, the film goes too far. It’s a thriller in shaggy clothes, but sometimes Reichardt doesn’t feel comfortable even in a genre she’s twisting. One over-the-top sequence late in is something that someone Reichardt, a plain minimalist, should never have forced herself to stage. She’s not even that confident in the first half, which trails her lead trio on their moonlit mission, doting on every long stretch of travel time. These crawling sequences don’t feel vital, as they did in “Meek’s Cutoff,” but there to make it feel like a Kelly Reichardt film. You can sense even the director getting bored as she drifts with her protagonists, even if they are heading for certain doom.

What doesn’t feel imposed is the deep feeling of anxiety and guilt that seems to drag the film down metaphorically. Sarsgaard may be a babbling, grinning live wire (who’s inevitably hiding a dark side) but Eisenberg and Fanning seem to be in a competition to see who can seem glummer. Eisenberg wins: He’s not merely distant but scarily distant. He’s a nice boy acting tough, but his inability to be convincingly intimidating makes him more menacing because his anger doesn’t seem to have precision. “Night Moves” is a problematic film, the work of a director stretching her boundaries and ultimately going too far. But as with Eisenberg, underestimate it and it can surprise you.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge


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