Night Moves mostly slipped under the radar in 2014. Despite the presence of Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard and a marketable premise – an ecoterrorism procedural – it attracted little buzz and didn’t even receive a proper release in Brisbane (though I should acknowledge that the always-excellent Schonell Theatre screened it sometime after the fact).
Watching the film, from indie director/screenwriter Kelly Reichardt, soon reveals why it never quite infiltrated the mainstream. While the storyline has the characteristics of a threadbare thriller, its pared down to its essence – three people plot to blow up a dam, blow up a dam, deal with the consequences – to such an extreme degree that it could have been executed in a five minute short. While Reichardt focuses on the specifics of the trio’s plan – including a digressive interlude where Fanning’s character tries to purchase ammonium nitrate fertilizer – the camera betrays her interest in mood over narrative, adopting an approach that is reflective and largely undramatic.
Night Moves is defined by patient, unobtrusive filmmaking. There’s a scene mid-film where an explosive-laden boat is towed by an aging pick-up truck, and the care with which the truck accelerates is paired with the understated camerawork, lingering on the soil displaced by the tyres’ implacable inching. There’s an earthiness to the film that’s accentuated by its colour palette. There’s a ‘brownness’ to many of the daytime shots, particularly later in the film, suggesting that dirt hangs in the air. At night, the film glimmers softly, like wet river stones in the moon.
I tend to associate this sort of quiet, observational filmmaking with a meditative atmosphere. But Night Moves is not a calming film. Rather, it gentle ratchets up tension throughout, as the magnitude of the trio’s actions – and the seeming inevitability of their failure and/or incarceration – becomes increasingly apparent. To paraphrase the screenplay, it’s got that “whole end of the world vibe” (it reminded me of Foxcatcher, but with a softer edge to its fatalism). Night Moves is best described as an acquired taste then, pairing its entirely uncommercial direction with a storyline influenced by generations of schemes-gone-wrong Hollywood films. I found myself drawn to its texture but wished for either more or less from its story, rather than the uncomfortable middle ground between contemplative and eventful the film inhabits.
Night Moves certainly feels like an odd film for these three actors to inhabit. Each of Eisenberg, Fanning and Sarsgaard delivers a good performance; however, the ordinariness of their characters feels somewhat compromised by their recognisable faces (particularly for the two men). I couldn’t help but remember Eisenberg’s performance as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network; his character here shares the same irritability and the same uncommented-on sense of superiority. Sarsgaard has always struck me as existing somewhere between leading man and character actor, but he’s aged into the latter role here. He’s like a once sharp saw whose metal teeth have been blunted and rusted by time, and it suits his character to a tee.
Fanning is the real highlight as the quiet centre of the group. She’s less assertive than her partners; less certain. But her confidence and competence shine through, and you sense that she’s the leader even if none of the three would acknowledge her as such. That confidence crumbles in the wake of their execution of their plan, and I was disappointed that her character was largely shifted to the margins in the last half of the film in favour of Eisenberg’s character. I can understand the decision, as the distance created between the audience and Eisenberg by his restrained performance and his moral decisions are entirely consistent the film’s approach. But I couldn’t help but wish for the spark of life that Fanning gives the film when she’s onscreen.