Fixated on circular rhythms and recurring patterns, the flow of nature and the echo chamber of history, Night Moves is equally focused on the disruption of those cycles, and how such fractures fit within an even broader cyclicality. Entrenched in an of-the-moment world of collective farms, organic produce, and eco-friendly rhetoric, it initially seems set to present a quiet satire of green living, but aside from a few gently sardonic match cuts, Kelly Reichardt’s ambitions are geared less toward humor than observation. A chronicler of the ebb and flow of the American spirit, she digs into the foundations of this modern lifestyle, pushing past surface qualities to analyze the deeper impulse toward independent action, imagining political rebellion as a reflection of emotional unease. The tale of two young dissidents told here could just as easily be set in the tumultuous ’60s, amid the fervor of ’30s radicalism, the bomb-tossing anarchist furor of the 1890s, and so on and so forth, stretching back before America was even born.
Such history doesn’t seem particularly present to Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) and Dena (Dakota Fanning), who start the film hungry to establish their extremist bona fides, casing a large hydroelectric dam while trading scraps of structural knowledge. Both are taken with the righteous dream of becoming certified eco-saviors, liberating a natural water source from its human oppressors, but there’s an immediate sense of desperation in their quest. Both clearly have something to prove, whether its Dena’s sustained rebellion against her wealthy parents or Josh’s sense of himself as a revolutionary hero in the making. The act of destruction they pursue, inextricably wrapped up in their own personal dramas, steadily surges outward, affecting others while pushing them ever closer to their true selves.
Leaving Portland to link up with Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), the third member of their cadre, the two gather supplies for a fertilizer-powered bomb, itself a symbol of nurturing energy inverted toward grim purpose. Heading out of town, they encounter a symbolic indication of what’s to come, coming upon a dead deer lying on the side of the road, an unborn fawn trapped within its still-warm stomach. Barely hesitating, Josh kicks the creature off the road, Reichardt’s camera lingering as the corpse slides down into the forest. It’s an essential, and in some ways merciful, bit of inaction, but there’s also something morbid here—an act of kindness deliberately not performed, a sense of nature’s callousness being exploited for personal gain—that will only grow firmer as the two push toward their violent goal.
Like Michael Cera’s two recent films with Sebastián Silva, Night Moves reveals the dark core contained within an actor’s nice-guy neuroticism. There’s nothing cute or endearing about Josh, a bundle of nerves eager to assert his power and know-how against the effortlessly masculine Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), a former Marine and survivalist who seems much better suited to insurgency. Eisenberg has never been a showy performer, despite the sputtering tics and frustrated inarticulateness exhibited in films like The Social Network, and here he manages an even more subtle performance, conveying similar aggravation without saying much at all. This is a character who’s desperate to be seen as in control, and who’s performing a constant act of self-repression to achieve that effect, brimming over with potential rants and freak-outs that get squashed before they can explode.
The character’s self-imposed reticence gets tested as he battles with Harmon, in a quiet struggle that spans both control of the attack and the affections of their female compatriot, who seems more interested in proving herself capable of carrying out the bombing. The low-key battle of wills, with a hapless, disinterested female at the center, results in something similar to Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet, down to masculine and feminine energies expressed via compatible landscape features. The film remains focused on how these internal struggles shape external conflicts, and how those conflicts push people toward violent expressions of chaos, the sorts of explosive declarations that can alter the tide of history. Throughout all this, nature remains at a distinct remove, unchanged and perhaps unchangeable, ignorant to all the furious effort expended on its behalf.