×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Venice Film Review: ‘Night Moves’

This eco-thriller has a quietly gripping first hour that builds to a suspenseful peak, then yields faintly diminishing returns thereafter.

With:

Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard, Alia Shawkat, Logan Miller, Kai Lennox, Katherine Waterston, James Le Gros.

One of the most sharp-eyed and politically attuned filmmakers of her generation, Kelly Reichardt blends her lucid observational approach with a topical-thriller format to engrossing effect in “Night Moves.” Perfectly consistent with the director’s earlier films in its political dimensions and fascination with nature as both backdrop and subject, this tale of three environmental activists planning a dangerous act of eco-terrorism has a quietly gripping first hour that builds to a suspenseful peak, then yields faintly diminishing returns thereafter as the doubts and implications set in. But if Reichardt doesn’t quite stick the landing, she’s nonetheless made her most accessible, plot-driven picture to date, albeit one that may still seem too glacial by mass-audience standards to see more than a modest arthouse turnout.

Reichardt has expanded her scope and stretched her talents with every feature since rising to indie prominence with the microbudget two-hander “Old Joy” (2006), and it’s been fascinating to see her retain her personal-cinema principles while adapting to the challenges of a more expansive (and expensive) canvas each time out. With its genre elements and name leads (Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard), “Night Moves” is unlikely to draw the same critical attention as the more rarefied “Wendy and Lucy” and “Meek’s Cutoff”; it’s neither the commercial sellout that purists may have feared nor the sort of revelatory breakthrough that would spell major crossover potential. (The modest B.O. performance of Fox Searchlight’s far flashier eco-terrorist thriller “The East” may provide a useful point of comparison.)

“Night Moves” is, instead, precisely the sort of intelligent, measured thriller Reichardt’s admirers would expect from her brand of patient realist filmmaking, a picture that starts slow but quietly gets its hooks into the attentive viewer. Writing with her usual scenarist, Jon Raymond, the director makes effective early use of establishing shots, silences and scraps of conversation to establish the secret plans of Josh (Eisenberg) and Dena (Fanning), two Oregon-based environmentalists who have been radicalized to the point that working on agricultural communes and raising awareness at documentary screenings are no longer enough.

And so they purchase a small boat (whose name gives the film its title), acquire fake IDs and meet up with Harmon (Sarsgaard), an older ex-Marine who knows a thing or two about explosives. Together they plan to blow up a nearby hydroelectric dam and send a message to those who think it’s OK, as Josh puts it, to “kill salmon just so you can run your fucking iPod every second of your life.” But Reichardt, whose past several films were subtle expressions of liberal despair, proves just as willing to confront the delusions of the extreme left, and her focus here is the point at which vaguely stated ideals become irrevocable realities.

Thus, apart from a few doom-laden statistics about the sorry state of marine biodiversity, the characters here don’t spend too much time mouthing off about their political agendas, as they’re already on the same page anyway. Instead, the film focuses on procedural details, all the tiny ways in which the best-laid plans can go awry; acquiring 500 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer without arousing suspicion, for instance, turns out to be a trickier proposition than they expected. The result is an intimate, coolly insinuating portrait of conspiracy in action, and viewers may be surprised at how tense they find themselves — and how invested they have become —as Josh, Dena and Harmon prepare to execute their mission.

“Night Moves” might have been close to perfect had it clocked in at a tight 80 minutes or so, rather than pushing on for another half-hour. While the fallout is impressively handled in its own way, the suspense and momentum inevitably dissipate as the story slowly moves toward a credulity-straining climax. Still, a feeling of deflation is entirely in keeping with the note Reichardt means to end on, and she finds just the right closing shot with which to convey exactly what her characters have and haven’t accomplished.

The three leads manage the tricky task of drawing the audience into complicity but not sympathy with their characters, all cold, cynical types who are often curt and withholding in their dealings with one another and the outside world. (The press materials reveal more backstory than the film does.) Eisenberg gets the dominant perspective, and while he’s entirely believable as the most contemptuous and also most committed of the trio, the decision to make Josh so taciturn, robbing him of the actor’s trademark verbal agility, reduces the character to a series of increasingly paranoid and paralyzed reaction shots in the final reels.

Production values are spare but crisp and exacting. Reichardt, always attuned to environment in the most basic storytelling sense, delivers her own moving tribute to Mother Nature with a poignant, wordless sequence in which Josh, Dena and Harmon row their boat past a wooded area conspicuously devoid of trees, Christopher Blauvelt’s crystalline HD images merging to mournful effect with composer Jeff Grace’s moody chordal progressions.

Popular on Variety

Venice Film Review: 'Night Moves'

Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Aug. 30, 2013. (Also in Toronto Film Festival — Special Presentations.) Running time: 112 MIN.

Production:

(International sales: The Match Factory, Cologne, Germany.) Produced by Neil Kopp, Anish Savjani, Chris Maybach, Saemi Kim, Rodrigo Teixeira. Executive producers, Saerom Kim, Lourenco Sant' Anna, Alejandro de Leon, Todd Haynes, Larry Fessenden.

Crew:

Directed, edited by Kelly Reichardt. Screenplay, Jon Raymond, Reichardt. Camera (color, HD), Christopher Blauvelt; music, Jeff Grace; music supervisors, Lyle Hysen, Chris Swanson; production designer, Elliott Hostetter; art director, Almitra Corey; set decorator, Virginia Yount; costume designer, Vicki Farrell; sound, Glenn Micallef; supervising sound editor, Julia Shirar; sound designer, Kent Sparling; re-recording mixers, Shirar, Sparling; casting, Laura Rosenthal, Mark Bennett.

With:

Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard, Alia Shawkat, Logan Miller, Kai Lennox, Katherine Waterston, James Le Gros.

More Film

  • German Cinema Is Diverse, But Is

    German Cinema Is Varied, But Is It Too Risk Averse?

    One of the strengths of German cinema is its diversity, says Simone Baumann, managing director of the national film promotion agency German Films. As well as the three films at Toronto directed by female German helmers, there was also German filmmaker Thomas Heise’s documentary film essay “Heimat Is a Space in Time.” Then there were [...]

  • Female Filmmakers in Germany Make Progress

    Female Filmmakers Surge Forward in Germany, But Still Face Obstacles

    Four feature films by German filmmakers screened at the Toronto Film Festival, and three of them were directed by women – Angela Schanelec’s “I Was at Home, But…,” winner of the Berlinale’s best director prize, Ina Weisse’s “The Audition,” and Katrin Gebbe’s “Pelican Blood,” the latter two both starring Nina Hoss. Germany’s Oscar entry this [...]

  • Bull

    Annie Silverstein's 'Bull' Takes Top Awards, Robert Pattinson Starrer 'The Lighthouse' Wins Jury Prize at Deauville

    Annie Silverstein’s feature debut “Bull” swept three awards at the 45th Deauville American Film Festival, including the Grand Prize, the Revelation Prize for best first film and the Critics’ Prize. “Bull,” a portrait of a rebellious teenage girl from South Texas, world premiered at Cannes’s Un Certain Regard and marks Silverstein’s follow up to her [...]

  • Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez star

    Jennifer Lopez's 'Criminal' Striptease: How 'Hustlers' Landed the Fiona Apple Hit

    Contrary to what you might be expecting, the number of songs by Jennifer Lopez, Lizzo and Cardi B in “Hustlers,” their newly released acting vehicle, adds up to … zero. Meanwhile, the standout music sync in a movie that’s full of them belongs to no less likely a choice than Fiona Apple. The scene in [...]

  • Game of Thrones Season 8

    'Game of Thrones,' 'Avengers' Win Big at 45th Annual Saturn Awards

    As Jamie Lee Curtis picked up her first trophy ever at the 45th Annual Saturn Awards Friday night, she had a good luck charm on her arm: former manager Chuck Binder, whom she said was the reason she became an actor. “I was in college and had no thought of being an actor,” Curtis told [...]

  • Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu star

    Box Office: 'Hustlers' Dances Toward $32 Million Opening Weekend

    “Hustlers” is eyeing the biggest opening weekend ever for STXFilms, following a Friday domestic ticket haul of $13.1 million from 3,250 theaters. If estimates hold, the stripper saga could take home around $32 million come Sunday, marking the best live-action opening of Jennifer Lopez’s career. “Hustlers” follows a group of former strip club dancers, led [...]

  • Hustlers intimacy coordinator

    Meet the Stripper Consultant Who Gave 'Hustlers' Authenticity, Dignity and Sexual Freedom

    At last week’s Toronto Film Festival premiere of “Hustlers,” an audience of Hollywood heavyweights and Canadian locals applauded as a statuesque woman strutted on stage, rocking six-inch platform heels and a pastel tie-dye bodysuit. This adoration was not for stars Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu or Keke Palmer, nor was it for the film’s acclaimed writer-director [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content