NIGHT MOVES [Kelly Reichardt, 2014]

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Cambridge Film Festival 2014

NIGHT MOVES is a thriller of sorts; but as you would expect from the director of the enigmatic Western, MEEK’S CUTOFF, Kelly Reichardt takes the genre in unexpected and fascinating directions. The plotting is sparse and slow, though in Reichardt’s hands the formal restraint only serves to heighten the uneasy sense of growing tension relentlessly built-up just below the surface.

The beginning of the film shows how three environmental activists set about realising their plan to blow-up a dam. The preparations are often amateurish and poorly thought through, thanks in large part to the over-confident but inept ‘leadership’ of Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard). His friend Josh is in large part taken-in by Harmon’s supposed knowledge and expertise – although his barely suppressed anxiety is a note of foreboding that runs throughout the film. Dena (Dakota Fanning) is the most perceptive and capable of the three, though in typical Reichardt manner, her voice goes largely ignored by the others.

Many commentators have rightly praised the pressure-cooker performance of Jesse Eisenberg, but the other two are also excellent, particularly Dakota Fanning, who is pitch-perfect in what is perhaps the most difficult role of the three, one which requires great subtlety and intelligence. This is a film where the nuances of characterisation are essential in bringing to life such a finely crafted, intensely psychological, yet understated script (by Reichardt and long-term collaborator Jon Raymond).

Of course, the political aspects of the film are important, but they are always routed in the personal – the certainties of idealism swept away by waves of guilt as the realities of unintended consequences become unavoidable. Even the broader social contexts, such as the well-meaning farm-cooperative, or Lena’s comfortable middle-class background, find resonance in the psychological, in the personal dilemmas. Action and inaction, galvanising idealism and paralising practicalities, are equally problematic in the looming shadow of immense potential environmental catastrophes. The very human need to reduce such a complex and overwhelming problem to the simple equation of local fish survival balanced against less hours charging our iPads provides the perfect catalyst in the plot for exploring this clash of the social and the personal.

What impresses most about the film is the boldness of its restraint. It never strains for effect or falls back on the easy diversions of action over patient observation. In the hands of a lesser director, this approach might result in a stultifying pretentiousness. Reichardt and her fine cast deliver what seems like an effortless intensity that refuses to provide easy answers. it is an impressive and deeply satisfying achievement.