Night Moves (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Night Moves (2014)

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Hoping to bring some awareness to the growing threat humans pose on the environment, three activists plot to blow up a hydroelectric dam.  Night Moves is the sixth feature film from director and co-writer Kelly Reichardt.

Off into the nightThrillers are predominantly packaged in two different ways.  We either get the slow-burn release of information and action that puts our characters in harm's way, or there is a consistent oppression laced into the plot with twists to keep the audience guessing.  The counter to each flavor would be the fizzling thriller which maintains an air of tension leading to an ultimately flat product, or the obnoxious exposition dump that reveals everything in unpredictable reveals of excessive energy.

Night Moves is a can of soda that opens almost an hour into the film and then is left exposed to the harsh wilderness until it grows flat and tasteless.  It's a good example of the problem with a slow-burn, because at least a fire consumes and transforms the materials which are lit by the destructive force.  While there's a lot to admire when the tension finally ratchets up, those positive qualities slowly lose their initial appeal and end on an unexciting, syrupy goop of slow existential terror instead of a gradual transformation of what came before.

One weapon in Night Moves' arsenal that almost pushes the film into satisfaction, and that's the perfect casting of Jesse Eisenberg in the role of Josh, the nervous man who wants action now.  Eisenberg is one of those performers who I love to watching thinking and does more acting with his eyes than some do with their whole body.  He twitches sometimes, but rarely communicates something with his voice that can't be done with another second or two of his lingering stare.  When he does speak, he conveys the angry storm brewing inside him so cautiously that he betrays the bit of confidence that his partners have in him.

Few joys in this world top the sight of Jesse Eisenberg trying to think his way through a problem.

Few joys in this world top the sight of Jesse Eisenberg trying to think his way through a problem.

Eisenberg's partners, with Dakota Fanning as Dena and Peter Sarsgaard as Harmon, are also quite good.  Josh has this tendency to stare longer than he should, and Dena makes a good counterpoint to this by answering any question or remark with several more sentences than is needed.  Fanning makes the interesting choice to play this off not as a nervous tic or oblivious impulse, but as a way of showing her partners that she's insecure but still involved their scheme through to the end.  It's a nice twist on the off-putting motormouth, and while Sarsgaard does not have as much screen-time as the two of them he lends Harmon a cocksure attitude that shows he has not thought through the total implications of their plot so far.

Director Kelly Reichardt also fills the screen with an ambiguous ambiance to their actions that I found affecting.  Faces fade in and out of view with each shot, and even when a clear goal has been established that landmark grows fuzzy as well.  Considering the different personas Josh and his partners throw up to mask their inexperience, this is a good way of conveying how little they all have thought through their plan.  I also enjoyed their utter isolation as they are constantly frames as distant, blurry figures from the people who come into their view.  There's a nice contrast between their self-imposed outsider status and the more group-oriented hippie enclave that has a film festival at the beginning, who are part of a larger crowd but are seen, as they likely see themselves, with more clarity and sharpness to the frame.

There's a lot to respect, and enjoy, about Night Moves.  The problem with the film is that it matches Josh's gaze by keeping shots on their subjects for a few seconds longer to create tension, but ends up having the opposite effect.  Each scene of the crew nervously considering their next step already runs long but followed by moments of the same kind of tension.  So you'll watch scenes like Harmon carefully driving Josh and Dena away from a crime followed by a similar sequence of Josh doing the same.  The dynamic changes so little that those few extra seconds spent on each shot make the prospect of domestic ecological terrorism banal instead of an ethical dilemma.

I may not have been wowed by Night Moves, but scenes like the hippie film festival make a subtle argument for the qualities of the peaceful enclave versus Josh's more radical approach.

I may not have been wowed by Night Moves, but scenes like the hippie film festival make a subtle argument for the qualities of the peaceful enclave versus Josh's more radical approach.

What happens is the slow pacing and overlong scenes dulls the emotional impact of the eventual moral crisis.  The scenario itself is a bit too predictable, especially when the camera lingers on the people standing by the bank of the river before their crime and gives a strong hint of what is to come, but this isn't an automatic negative in any film analysis.  It's that the gradually encroaching banality of the presentation allows us to outpace the film a bit, and then ends on a shot that shows just how little has changed from the starting reel to the finish.

My experience with Night Moves was by no means a bad one, and there's a lot of films that could use this film's patient approach with climaxes.  But the flip-side of that approach is delaying that finale to the point where every action dulled by its extremely gradual approach.  Night Moves has the ingredients to get an audience lost in the moral choices of its characters, and instead feels like a story where you feel the clock drag until the end.

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Tail - Night MovesNight Moves (2014)

Directed by Kelly Reichardt.
Screenplay written by Jonathan Raymond and Kelly Reichardt.
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, and Peter Sarsgaard.

Posted by Andrew

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