Little more than a piece of recyclable indie film fare, director Kelly Reichardt’s latest eco-friendly romp is as psychologically dark as it is long and tedious. Night Moves (2013) aims to be a sophisticated exposé of the thriller genre, although it is strangely neo-noir in the kind of hardened male broodiness of its lead characters, and instead plays out like a riff on environmentalist propaganda. Reichardt’s skill in plotting events and solid story is potentially soiled by the dull, swashbuckling activists and their performances at the centre of it all.
The story is kept relatively simple, three young radicals ploy to blow up a dam in some deranged attempt to save mother earth. Narratively, however, the film teeters between two separate (and equally lifeless) halves: the first a pamphlet for green peace that pries into the lives of a group of young activists-cum-anarchists and their terrorist dealings. The second, livelier act is a character exposé and psychological journey where the story turns thriller without the thrills. Politics quickly bubble to the surface in lieu of story, and rather than chiming into the zeitgeist of current environmentalism, which offers a far more optimistic outlook, Night Moves favours the drumbeat advocacy of a lost hope for our once vibrant green slopes, lush blue lake fronts and auburn burnt sun rises.
Reichardt’s film does, however, show promise with the way she investigates the characters involved and consequently their tormented psyches come into a crystal clear focus. The camerawork often pries into the lives of these characters and tries to create an intimacy and sense of empathy for these roughish broken-hearted youths, bent on a stint of existential misery and wallowing in their hormonal wretchedness. Reichardt’s style is evocative of some of Steven Soderbergh’s more reputable, bare-knuckled dramas such as Traffic (2000). Where both films share a grisly documentary-like approach to filming their subjects, affording the characters of this little drama with a penchant for compassion by illustrating their steadfast dedication for their cause and by peering past the environmentalist rhetoric. Although come the film’s 112-minute duration, the flat-footed narrative covers little terrain and the run-time is encumbered by the blank stares and dry personalities of its characters and an almost sarcastic twist on a green-peace crusade.
Reichardt manages to pay a considerable amount of attention to the film’s subjects, but her approach lacks energy and enthusiasm in doing so. Pixar’s adored Wall-E (2008) played well to the heartstrings of its wide-eyed, impressionable young audience and offered a clever and engaging take on environmentalism. Night Moves, however, chooses to illustrate its theme through commonplace and uninspired imagery: the juxtaposition of a pile of trash with a scenic landscape lingering in the backdrop does little to muster any sympathy or concern. The themes, too, are effectively abandoned as the film struggles to maintain focus as the plot oscillates between the politics of environmentalism and the aftermath that it causes on the characters.
Burying his hands into his pockets and hunching his head forward once again, Jesse Eisenberg, this time without his trendy flip-flops worn by the snarky Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network (2010), plays a troubled Josh Stamos. The shadows that sag underneath his eyes and the faint beard that encircles his slanted mouth suggests a distinctly grungy darkness and maturity; Eisenberg is more reclusive and slowly burdens an aching heart as the story continues. Eisenberg’s performance brings little more than shrugged shoulders and an empty expression to the portrayal of the young radical. The once popular child actor and apparent diva, Dakota Fanning (War of the Worlds, 2005), on the other hand, wonders into the scene bewildered and offers little to her role as Dena Brauer. This shallow character panders to convenience, as Brauer’s worth is apparently her wealth, and Fanning’s performance brings little to spark a livelihood in the character.
Night Moves voices its darkly spirited agenda in a monotonous hum. Where Reichardt succeeds, she brings emotion to the emotionally disconnected, and finds a psychological pain in the youth. Perhaps its greatest triumph is in its understanding of a clique of youths run adrift. For all its tediousness and visual simplicity, Night Moves may be more resonant with Reichardt’s fans than the average cinema attendee.