The Ripple Effect: Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves (2013)

I wanted to see Night Moves even before I knew who Kelly Reichardt was. Jesse Eisenberg is a compelling actor to watch (he was in Richard Ayoade’s bizarre movie The Double around the same time) and I was curious to see what Dakota Fanning would be like playing off of him (our child stars seems to hold a special fascination; just look at how much press Mara Wilson is getting these days). It was getting some good buzz, but then it faded out of my radar.

I’ve seen three of Reichardt’s other films since last Christmas (Meek’s Cutoff, Wendy and Lucy, and River of Grass) and the lasting impression they left on me (combined with the coming release of Certain Women) finally gave me the impetus to view her 2o13 film. Eisenberg is notoriously chatty, grating even in his incessant word spillage (that’s a compliment, though I know it doesn’t seem like it) and Reichardt’s films are, contrastingly, severely restrained. I mean, her poster child is Michelle Williams. My fascination lay with how Eisenberg would handle Reichardt’s material, particularly when character is usually the most prominent aspect of her films.

The actors don’t disappoint. Eisenberg and Fanning play Josh and Dena, two “radical” environmentalists (Josh works on a co-op farm and Dena at some sort of alternative health spa). Presumably spurred on by the environmental seminars they attend (an environmental filmmaker they question suggests “a lot of small plans” in order to provoke positive change), they decide to blow up a nearby dam with Josh’s friend Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard).

I don’t doubt that some of Fanning’s child star background helps her here; Dena comes off as a naive know-it-all, always finding space for an aside: she wonders how the dam got around having to be equipped with fish ladders; she remarks that a bird sound they hear must be an Oriole; she lists the nutritional qualities of a trout before spouting statistics relating to fish decline. She seems quite ready to critique other people but, when the trios’ actions have unforeseen consequences, she is the first to crack from the pressure.

Eisenberg finds a way to effectively channel his signature nervousness into his body rather than simply release a deluge of babble. His eyes look eternally pained and the constant shaking and fidgeting of his hands makes him look like he’ll be the one to blow rather than the dam. Josh’s constant glances over his shoulder help to escalate the tension and dread Reichardt so carefully crafts throughout the film.

Making her audience wait is something at which Reichardt excels (anyone who’s seen Meek’s Cutoff should understand–Reichardt ensures that viewers experience the same stretched out agony of time her characters endure) but nowhere in her other films is the imminence of an overdue consequence felt so strongly. Whether it’s Fanning’s eyes lingering on a CCTV camera directed right at her just-uncovered face, the three radicals sitting still in a canoe hoping they won’t be seen while a clock counts down to the dam blast, or Josh trying to go naturally about his daily business despite the strange attention he starts to get from his coworkers.

Reichardt captures nature in a quiet way that subtly supports her characters’ lives. There is nothing luminous in the film’s treatment of outdoor shots; splendour is never what she’s after, though her settings always reveal the vastness of natural America. Instead, bright greens are left to signal the unnaturalness of well-groomed golfing turfs.

Reichardt and her cinematographer, Christopher Blauvelt, also devise some clever shots. When Harmon, Josh, and Dena drive carefully through an occupied campground, trying to avoid notice, the camera perspective is through a camper van window over the shoulders of an older couple watching The Price is Right, disconnected from their surroundings and so not attune to the trio’s progress through camp. Another great shot focuses on two little boys playing among a stand of dead trees in the foreground. Initially it is unclear what we are meant to gain from this, until you notice their boat driving slowly along the river in the background, seemingly above notice.

Reichardt does not appear to be making an environmental statement with her film. Like in her other films, she seems more intent on watching her characters respond to duress. She lets the physical explosion of the dam occur offscreen because she is more interested in the ripples it creates. Her characters’ participation in an eco-terrorist act suggests that they have bought into the idea that small actions can create big change, yet they are not prepared for when their personal “small” action looms larger over their lives than they expected.

Ultimately, Night Moves offers its audience characters that, despite their extreme measures, are as unsure about how to ethically maneuver in their relationship to the environment as those who do nothing. They’re just struggling to find a place to belong.

 

 

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