Our big year-in-review issue hits the street on Thursday, December 24. I know you can’t wait, and neither can I, so every weekday until then I’ll be writing about one of my favorite films to premiere in Chicago in 2014. Number five on my list is Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves.
Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), a brooding eco-radical in southwest Oregon, plots to blow up a local hydroelectric dam, drawing technical expertise from Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), a scruffy ex-marine, and ready cash from Dena (Dakota Fanning), a Connecticut rich kid. Dena and Harmon each confer privately with Josh to ask if the other can be trusted, and though Josh calms their fears, he isn’t sure he can trust either of them: returning to Harmon’s trailer after a walk in the woods, he overhears them making love inside. Josh and Dena have bought a used fishing boat—Night Moves, it’s called—and Dena cons a local farm-supply company into selling her 500 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer. Together the three conspirators build a time bomb, pilot it out to the edge of the dam under cover of darkness, and abandon the boat, canoeing back to shore to make their escape.
Night Moves may seem like an odd project for Kelly Reichardt, director of such quiet, bucolic indies as Old Joy (2006) and Wendy and Lucy (2008), but her assured naturalism dovetails beautifully with the unfolding crime story. The movie is more suspenseful than any Hollywood release I saw this year, despite its unhurried pace: check out the agonizingly prolonged scene in which Dena tries to sweet-talk a suspicious supervisor at the supply store (James Le Gros) into selling her the highly restricted fertilizer, or the scene in which a chatty hiker stumbles upon the three at a picnic table by the river and they do their best to get rid of him, or the sequence in which they watch motionless from the canoe, their hearts in their mouths, as a car unexpectedly stops on a nearby bridge in full view of them and the occupants get out to check some equipment in their trunk before driving off.
In fact, if Night Moves weren’t so green, it would probably be noir. In the finest tradition of the genre, something goes terribly wrong and the little terror cell fractures. According to their plan, they agree to separate and maintain radio silence, but the pressure begins to build. (Especially effective are the scenes in which Josh’s friendly coworkers at an organic farm begin silently pulling away from him as rumors swirl.) Harmon is cool as a cucumber, but Dena, plagued by guilt and breaking out in a terrible rash, keeps calling him to unburden herself, until Harmon contacts Josh to warn him that she’s about to crack. Reichardt and her longtime writing partner Jonathan Raymond recently tried their hand at a period western with Meek’s Cutoff (2010), though the results were mixed; here they turn a hardy noir premise into something wholly contemporary, a seedy tale of human fallibility enacted on a dying planet.