Eco-terrorists. Are they really terrorists, or are they passionate individuals fighting The System and The Man to make the world a better place? And if they’re not terrorists in the sense of Al Qaeda fundamentalists are, then is the difference their motives, their background, or their targets?
That’s what Night Moves explores with its indie sensibility and superb – if underutilized – cast. Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) is an ex-Marine who is listlessly traveling through his uneventful life on an organic co-op farm in rural Oregon. His friend Dena (Dakota Fanning) is the daughter of a wealthy family but is unhappy with her middle class existence and seeks to do more to protest the gradual destruction of the environment. Her knowledge is based on textbooks, lectures and political movies, however, and she’s never done much of anything in protest.
Josh is friends with doomsday prepper and loner Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) and when the two men hatch a plan to blow up a hydroelectric dam at the Lake of the Woods outside Portland, Oregon, it’s Dena they turn to both for her access to cash and as a naive accomplice.
She and Josh purchase a used speedboat that they then strip and fill with fertilizer-based explosives, the base fertilizer for which Dena has purchased in town. Except purchasing hundreds of pounds of ammonium nitrate is tricky because it’s a controlled substance, so she plays the sexist trump card: “If I were a man, you’d sell it to me in a minute”.
When they push the boat against the wall of the dam and Harmon sets a rather sloppy detonator, the three jump into a canoe and leave the area, splitting up after agreeing not to communicate for any reason. When someone is drowned by the subsequent disaster, however, Dena can’t keep quiet and the trio unravels, each showing their all-too-human weaknesses.
Night Moves was very well received at the various film festivals where it was screened, but I have no explanation for that. What I saw was a frankly boring film that boiled complex characters down into one-dimensional individuals who never had any emotional range at all. The film plays more like a stage production and indeed would likely be a compelling play. As a movie, however, it never really got started and the transitions in the film are puzzling, with the closing scene frankly baffling.
Worse, the cast is splendid. Eisenberg, Fanning and Sarsgaard have all shown their considerable acting ability on the silver screen, but in Night Moves they never gave us even a glimmer of their talent. Quite possibly it’s director Kelly Reichardt who is to blame, though this is her eight movie, not her first time behind the camera. She does have a track record of slow, meandering films that “give the characters room to breath”, as other critics have said. Possibly, there’s just too much of that breathing in this movie.
And it’s a disappointment. The topic is tremendously timely and it is a question we as a society need to explore, what differentiates someone passionate about the environment from an activist, and what differentiates an activist from an eco-terrorist? Unfortunately, Night Moves isn’t the film to spark this discussion.