If you don’t know the work of American filmmaker Kelly Reichardt, get familiar. Her 2008 film Wendy and Lucy was a tear-jerker without being saccharine or manipulative, and her 2010 follow-up Meek’s Cutoff was as grim as Westerns get without being dour or angry. Her newest effort, Night Moves, pulls off a tougher feat than those two combined: it’s a film about violent crime that is mature but neither preachy nor amoral, and manages to be a first-rate thriller in the bargain.
Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) and Dena (Dakota Fanning) are a pair of environmentalists who are planning … something. To say much more would involve spoilers, which are better left for the audience to suss out themselves. However, it’s clear that this plan must be hidden even from the fellow travelers at their local activist meetings, and especially from the police. From their first meeting with a facilitator played by Peter Sarsgaard, it’s clear that whatever they are planning, it’s big.
Now, that may sound similar to last year’s The East, a quality film about militant environmentalists, which was held back by a strong case of preachiness in its key moments. The difference is that, while The East was told from the perspective of an outsider going in, Night Moves puts the audience completely alongside the perpetrators from the beginning. Either Josh or Dena is in every single shot of the film, and there is no moral judgment of their decisions in their world. Anyone who might judge them is “outside,” i.e., the enemy.
Except that’s not exactly true. The brilliance of Reichardt’s vision is that, without any obvious effort, she has captured the tunnel vision that has blinded these characters to any solution except violence. Halfway through the film, after a key plot twist has occurred, we finally see the everyday living situation for Josh: he lives on a fully independent, sustainable, organic vegetable farm. For all of the problems that he has been acting against, he was part of the solution, without ever needing violence.
The film then achieves a far greater depth by displaying an understanding of the fact that Josh is not motivated solely by the destruction of the environment, but also his own alienation. This film could be studied to an incredible degree simply by examining the size of the system compared to the size of the act that the protagonists are planning. They’re looking to do something big; in Eisenberg’s words, they want Americans to “start thinking.” And yet, when their preparations create some garbage, Josh doesn’t reuse or recycle it. He dumps it in a massive landfill, in a gorgeous shot that shows how any act, even one as big as these characters are planning, is nothing in comparison to the system. Josh and Dena can’t smash that system; they can only announce their isolation from it.
Perhaps resorting to violence is an act that alienates one from the rest of society, or perhaps these acts can only be committed by alienated people. The struggle to understand similar acts in recent years, from the Columbine killings to the Boston Marathon bombings, offers no easy answers in either direction. Either way, Night Moves is at its best when it shows that The Grid (as one character refers to it, in a tone of voice demanding capital letters) is not just a tool for mankind to create profit. It is also a safety net to protect us from that crippling alienation, to tell us that we belong, in the face of a world that can be harsh and hostile to those who do not. Night Moves presents an unbearably tense narrative, but the subtext that these characters come to understand during that narrative is what makes it the best film shown during Tribeca 2014.
— Mark Young