Night Moves is the latest film from indie auteur Kelly Reichardt, director of neo-realistic dramas Old Joy, Meek's Cutoff, and Wendy and Lucy. Wait, come back! There's a good many who would say "neo-realistic" is euphemism for "dull", and to be fair her prior work, while incisive and emotionally staggering, tends to lack positive action. Night Moves is slightly different, however, in that its characters are set to take a very explosive action for what they perceive is a just cause.
Night Moves follows a similar tract as last year's kinetic thriller, The East, in its exploration of the radical environmentalist movement. But this is a Reichardt film through and through; more concerned with the motivations and contradictions in its trio of lead characters. Little in the way of fanfare introduces us to Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), a quiet, simmering environmentalist raised on a "green" commune; Deena (Dakota Fanning), who comes from a place of privilege, and Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), a military vet with personal demons to spare. Out of some notion that a hydroelectric dam is in a state of anguish, the trio decide to blow it to smithereens.
Reichardt has always preferred an economy of plot in order to leave room for her character building efforts, and those who appreciate that in her work will find plenty of it. To put it bluntly: there's not a lot of story here as we simply follow the trio as they go about their plotting. That means watching them buy the ingredients for explosives, obtaining phony credentials, and securing transportation. The minutia isn't terribly exciting but the interactions between them are rife with tension. Josh is a no-nonsense sort, angry and with a touch of social awkwardness. It's a darker spin on what we'd expect out of Eisenberg and he is one of the reasons the film works as well as it does. Dissension, jealousy, and ultimately paranoia threaten to rip the group apart, ratcheting up when it comes time to trust one another fully.
And trust is ultimately what this film is about. Told in haunting, muted tones emphasizing the natural environment, Reichardt explores dichotomy between those who value life while causing destruction. When a twist of fate backs the trio into a dangerous corner, Reichardt casually shifts into another mode, telling a compelling story of obsession, guilt, and murder. The second half of Night Moves is gripping and unlike anything she's done before, and despite the incredibly slow pacing it's a side of her that needs to be on display more often.