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‘Night Moves’ Movie Review – preserves Kelly Reichardt’s winning style despite eco-thriller plot

‘Night Moves’ Movie Review – preserves Kelly Reichardt’s winning style despite eco-thriller plot


Night Moves

Written by Kelly Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond

Directed by Kelly Reichardt

USA, 2013

What separates life on the fringe of society from being outside of society entirely? It’s that line of demarcation that fascinates Kelly Reichardt, whose particularly American take on “slow cinema” collides with our own expectation of the requirements of the thriller genre in Night Moves, which cleverly cloaks its true thematic concerns in familiar story tropes.

Jesse Eisenberg’s usual performative tics, built up over a dozen or more films, are almost entirely absent here; he top-lines as Josh, a deeply serious (and self-serious) young man who divides his time between working for a farming cooperative and plotting direct-action protests with the aim of raising awareness of anti-environmental excesses. Along with two associates – his reclusive “brother” Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) and rebellious but whip-smart rich girl Dena (Dakota Fanning), Josh is gearing up to execute a plan to blow up a dam when the film opens. As the elements of their plot come together, Harmon expresses some measure of distrust towards Dena, but she proves to be key to the operation’s success. What follows is a methodical, patient meditation on the nature (and value) or modern protest, personal responsibility, and the manner in which our beliefs shape and guide us – or, in this case, misguide us.

Night Moves

Unlike Steve McQueen’s foray into more mainstream fare with 12 Years a Slave, Kelly Reichardt retains her usual attention to detail and minute focus on character even as she tackles a narrative that would seem to demand a heightened sense of suspense and plot momentum. By shunning the genre’s usual excesses, Reichardt (who re-teams with usual writing partner Jonathan Raymond) is able to play to her strengths, rather than attempt to subsume them with empty pageantry. Despite the languorous sensibility, Reichardt has a way of establishing character sensibilities quickly and without exposition – notice, for instance, the way a meet-in question period, which follows the screening of a rote pro-environment documentary, cuts away in the middle of a particularly dopey attendee commenting that merely being present at such an event constitutes constructive action. In the space of a minute or two, Reichardt makes clear that Josh and his cohorts are alienated not only from mainstream capitalism, but also from the more casual elements of their wider activist circle.

Despite the increased number of familiar faces, Reichardt is able to keep the performances grounded and utterly devoid of actorly artifice. Eisenberg in particular is a revelation here, all glower and ponderous silence, keeping the depths of his defiance and, later, despair, largely muted. Unlike other star performances where silent awareness is a key factor – Ryan Gosling’s collaborations with Nicolas Winding Refn spring to mind – Josh feels like a real human being, one whose convictions have believably driven him to perilous acts. When he inevitably shifts from idealistic man of action to desperate outlaw, the shift feels remarkably natural, despite his lack of outward expressiveness, and that’s a credit both to Eisenberg’s studied performance and Reichardt’s willingness to linger on key details (such as a metaphorically loaded shot of Josh simply scrutinizing his own palms) that almost any other director would have elided in favor of shouted exposition.

In a virtuosic final sequence, Josh must face a completely new reality, one in which his beliefs can no longer provide comfort, meaning, or purpose. Night Moves is ingenious in the way it smuggles a universal set of concerns into what might have been a by-numbers condemnation of idealism gone wrong; by the time we leave Josh to his fate and the credits roll, we simultaneously condemn his rash decisions and recognize in ourselves that to balance belief and reality is a daily battle, one too perilous for even the most hardened action hero to resolve without some form of casualty.

– Simon Howell

The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 5th to 15th, 2013. For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, please visit the official site.

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