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Wednesday
Jun182014

Night Moves (2014)

Spare Me The Planet

I don't usually take notes during movies. In the case of Night Moves, I'm glad I made an exception. Kelly Reichardt's thriller(?) about young environmental activists is well-cast, competently made, and as fleeting as the polar ice caps.

Jesse Eisenberg stars as Josh, an angry twenty-something who wants to save the planet by blowing stuff up. He joins forces with similarly deluded mod-hippies Dena (Dakota Fanning) and Harmon (Peter Sarsgard) to detonate an explosives-packed boat near an Oregon dam. If you've seen Reservoir Dogs, Bully, or any other drama, really, about people plotting a crime, you've seen more engaging and stylistically enthralling versions of Night Moves. From the loose cannon who threatens to blow the whole mission; to the Nervous Nelly who wrestles with keeping an awful secret; and the unintended consequences of a plan that once seemed so simple, Reichardt recycles and repackages all the genre's tropes in and earthy, indie-cred box that she hopes you won't notice has been significantly marked up for retail.

It's unclear who we're supposed to root for, and not in a way that suggests intentional ambiguity on the part of Reichardt and co-writer Jonathan Raymond. Josh is an icy prick. Dena is a trust-fund kid from Connecticut who gets all her enviro-science knowledge from a single college class she took years ago. Harmon is the kind of twitchy, unwashed proto-Manson that anyone with half a brain would see as trouble from the word "Go." There's no entry point for the audience, no wide-eyed average citizen who gets drawn into this laconic world of slogan-spouting super-freaks.

The filmmakers fail to establish why we should buy these three as eco-terrorists. Josh, Harmon, and Dena aren't consumed by consumerism, the Internet, or pop culture. Josh lives on a successful commune/food co-op with a nice family. Harmon moves from place to place in a trailer. Dena tags along, and we get the feeling that, for her, "normal" life is just a tearful phone call and a plane ticket away. They're all loosely affiliated with a community of like-minded souls whose main idea of activism seems to be making bad movies about our dying planet and then talking endlessly about them to a captive audience. Reichardt and Raymond never show us what our protagonists are so grumpy about; there's never a clash-of-ideals/impending-urgency scene to illustrate the switch between clipping cabbage and scamming bulk fertilizer.

The most conflict we get is some spot-on soap-boxing from the patriarch of Josh's commune, Sean (Kai Lennox). When news of the dam explosion hits the paper, he laments the perpetrators' short-sightedness. There are ten other dams on that same river, he reasons, and the activists needed to either go bigger or focus on what they have the ability to change, positively, and leave everyone else out of it.

Is this the big turning point for Josh? Nope, it's back to paranoid stewing for our sullen hero.

I'll give Reichardt and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt credit for making this journey into pointlessness a joy to look at. Night Moves looks great, and can just as easily be viewed as a commercial for the Oregon Tourism Board: "Relax along our winding rivers! Take shade in our sprawling, green woods! Ignore the handful of douchey locals!" The picture's first hour-and-a-half are well shot and occasionally carry a modicum of suspense (the highlight is the actual dam job and the roadblock that follows), but not even Roger Deakins could create a pretty enough distraction to make this film's contrived, stalk-and-slash last act worthwhile.

Speaking of suspense, allow me to call out an early scene whose warning signs I utterly failed to heed. When Dena visits a feed factory to purchase five-hundred-pounds of fertilizer, she encounters a by-the-book clerk, played by James Le Gros. He casually begins the paperwork and asks for Dena's social security card. She's unable to provide it, and immediately launches into the hair twirling, "Isn't there something we can work out?" routine. He'll have none of it, and insists on seeing the proper ID.

"How will Dena get out of this one?", we ask. The answer is peer pressure. A couple of old farmers wander into the office and tease the clerk for giving the poor little lady a hard time. Cut to Dena, Josh, and Harmon loading up their boat (the titular "Night Moves") with enough explosives to--well, bring down a dam. I'm not sure whose idea it was to undercut the previous scene's delicious tension with such a Bugs Bunny cop-out, but I wish bad things upon them.

I can't recommend Night Moves, but I can't exactly not recommend it, either. Most of the performances are fine, and the filmmakers get through a decent chunk of run-time before we realize they have nothing much to say. Still, I can't help but think the seed of this story would have blossomed more fully in the hands of a team that knew what kind of a crop they'd wanted to harvest.

*I use "stars" lightly here, as Eisenberg's screen presence has two modes. One is the devilishly obnoxious know-it-all from movies like The Social Network and (shivers) Now You See Me. The other is a mode of sulking passivity so absolute that the actors around him may as well be reacting to a dangling tennis ball that will later be replaced with a CGI approximation of a human being.

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