Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy (2008) was an effective piece of anti-narrative focused on the struggles of a young woman without money or social ties to find her way in the world. Meek’s Cutoff (2010), on the other hand, was an anti-Western that flogged a message of the radical unknowability of the world that just seemed silly to me. To call her latest movie, Night Moves, an anti-thriller is perhaps to stretch a point, but it’s true that Reichardt doesn’t seem to be interested in story in a traditional sense. Night Moves has the elements of a thriller, but it doesn’t really feel like one. It’s more of a character study about eco-terrorists who are plotting to blow up a hydro-electric dam in order to wake up the consumerist sheeple to the wastefulness of their lives.
The characters are Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), Dena (Dakota Fanning), and Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard). We actually learn very little about their backgrounds, although early on it’s established that Dena comes from a family with money and that Harmon was a Marine, which is apparently where he got his explosives training. We never learn much about where Josh comes from. Through conversation and a scene at a showing of an environmentalist documentary about the destruction of the planet, we learn that this trio feels the world is being destroyed by industrial development and that blowing up a dam will be a wake up call. The film keeps information about what’s going on at a minimum, so a lot of the air of mystery is around what exactly is happening more than whether the plot to blow up the dam will work. That’s part of what makes this an unconventional approach to the material.
It has rightly been pointed out, however, that this oblique approach doesn’t actually successfully avoid the generic nature of the story. The second half of the film stumbles a bit because the crux of the situation seems so banal. Yet it continues to flesh out the characters (in particular by showing us what Josh’s and Dena’s jobs are, thus giving us more of a context for their political beliefs), and because the characters are such everyday sorts who have gotten in over their heads, the growing tension between them feels awkward and real. Unexpectedly, Josh becomes the center of the film. The problem with this is that he’s such an inarticulate cipher that it’s hard to maintain much interest, yet the payoff is a sense of uncertainty that ultimately feels existential.
My biggest gripe with Meek’s Cutoff was that it wanted to create a sense of uncertainty but did it in the most dumb, ham-handed ways — for example, by making the captured Indian completely unintelligible to the settlers, in defiance of the actual experience of people who don’t speak each others’ language finding ways to communicate. Night Moves is more successful at embodying uncertainty as an organizing — or is it disorganizing? — principle. Why are these characters going to this extreme? What are they feeling? What is the right thing to do next? The ending of Meek’s Cutoff was just infuriating in its studied gesture of uncertainty, but the final shot in Night Moves achieves something far more enigmatic. I actually don’t think I could even begin to parse that final shot, except to say that, because of what has gone before, it makes a completely mundane scene of people talking on their cellphones in a large sporting goods store something deeply menacing and weird. Both Reichardt’s previous films (I haven’t seen her earliest features) are open-ended, but Night Moves takes it to a new level, partly because — thanks to the thriller elements — there are two horrible crimes left unresolved.
The main reason that I remain interested in Reichardt, despite the fact that I’m more of a genre guy than an anti-genre guy, is that she sets her films in my old home state, Oregon. Last time I looked into it, she was still living in New York, but Oregon has somehow captured her film-maker’s imagination. She is also a wonderful composer of images, and Night Moves looks great. There’s a tracking shot following a girl on a bike going down a gravel road that’s absolutely magical, and in general she has an elliptical visual style that is probably the most interesting aspect of her thematic concerns to me. As long as she continues to shoot films in Oregon, I’ll probably continue to keep an eye on what she’s doing.