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TIFF Review: 'Night Moves' Could Have Used More Forward Momentum

By Laremy Legel | Film | September 12, 2013 |

By Laremy Legel | Film | September 12, 2013 |

“Night Moves,” the song by Bob Seger, is a rollicking little ditty. Night Moves, the eco-terrorism thriller from director Kelly Reichardt, is not. The film embarks on solid enough footing, and the first 45 minutes play as taut and suspenseful, only to putter out completely before ever reaching the finish line. By the end there, yikes, Night Moves is running on night fumes.

Young environmentalists Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), Dena (Dakota Fanning), and Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) are plotting to blow up a dam, and from what little exposition is given it seems like this will help with salmon migration. Now, it’s one of the psychological tricks of cinema that you generally want the main characters to succeed in whatever they’re plotting, from a bank job to dam busting (they’re working so hard!) even though in this case the deed involved heavy explosives; offering very little hope for actual environmental benefit. In the cold light of day, what you’re really cheering for is a bunch of misguided youths worshipping at the temple of Gaia, pulling for them not to get caught, thinking, “Well, hell, maybe these guys can save the globe through random acts of violence?” That’s the instinct Night Moves trades on, but it’s the same shred of hope that allows you to turn on the whole trio once you realize they are potentially clueless rubes.

Earlier this year a little movie called The East explored a similar topic, environmentalists getting angry, then plotting the downfall of polluters, and the general public was so taken with the movie that one tenth of one percent of Americans purchased a ticket to see the show. So clearly Reichardt isn’t in this for the glory, which means she should be in it for the lesson or meaning. Only where are those elements located in this film? That remains opaque, as Night Moves refuses to condemn the eco-terrorists, but also takes pains to show how pointless their actions are. She doesn’t even really get into whether or not this particular portion of the country, Oregon, needs saving, and/or why it might be suffering from man-made ecological problems. Night Moves is the parent who won’t take the toy away from the screaming kid, figuring they’ll cry it out, and then heads off to hot yoga instead of waiting around to see if the tactic worked. And for what it’s worth, The East is worth a Netflix viewing, it has a few interesting moments and ends far better than this film.

Credit-wise, to focus on the initial portion of Night Moves that flows, it’s a patient slow build to the act itself. Reichardt is very good with silence and stillness, letting everything breathe, so in each scene the possibility of peril is very real, because the context isn’t malleable. The gang has to get more fertilizer, which throws up red flags, the activists must procure a boat, need to not be noticed, and plan to pull off their attack in the dark dead of night. Unfortunately, as you can probably surmise from this type of film, something goes wrong within the narrative, Josh, Dena, and Harmon face a setback, and it is exactly here that the film starts stalling out too.

The problem is everything that happens after “the thing” (I won’t spoil, just in case you’re one in a thousand buying a ticket), drags down the pace to an outright crawl. There’s no pace left, it’s all gone, and we’re left with three protagonists, disparate, with one only woven in via cell-phone conversations. The story then becomes Josh’s (Jesse Eisenberg) to carry, but he’s not given the tools. The task here seems to have been something along the lines of, “uh, just look vaguely worried,” which he does, for a slew of small moments, all adding up to one big still small moment, only time doesn’t stand still, we’re still out here, hoping something, anything, happens. Nothing really happens. You can hope all you want. Likewise, with Dakota Fanning’s character, she’s just not given much to do, even though she’s handling what she’s been given with typical Fanning pluckiness.

In the end, Night Moves is done in by an utter lack of conviction, a refusal to answer even little questions, and a closing half that demands you nod off. Reichardt has ability, and half of a good script, but it’s not nearly enough. Much as with the environment, filmmaking is complex, and whether your issue is salmon migration or script resuscitation, you’ve got to be ready to make the big moves in order to save the day.

Laremy wrote the book on film criticism. He has only the foggiest notion of how dams actually work.

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