It’s mostly at night, but it barely moves

Night Moves, the fifth feature from Wendy & Lucy director Kelly Reichhardt, takes its name from a boat purchased by Josh (Eisenberg – Social Network, Now You See Me) and Dena (Fanning – The Twilight Saga, War Of The Worlds) during the early scenes of this eco-thriller. Josh, a hard-nosed loner, and Dena, a college drop-out turned impassioned eco-warrior, intend to use the boat as part of a meticulously planned attempt to blow up a hydroelectric dam, which is intended as a spectacular protest against the corporate devastation of local natural resources.  

This is where Harmon (Sarsgaard – An Education, Blue Jasmine) comes in. He’s an ex-marine with experience in explosives, who now lives like a hermit on the fringes of society. With Josh masterminding the operation and Dena bankrolling it, we spend the first hour of the film watching the three prepare, discuss and debate the finer details of their plot. 

Oh Dena and oh dear
Here, there are two memorable scenes, one of which is excruciating to watch as Dena attempts to purchase ammonium nitrate without the necessary documentation, and another in which Josh and Dena hit a deer on their drive to a rendezvous with Harmon. The latter is particularly haunting due to the discovery that although the animal is knocked dead, it is pregnant and the calf it is carrying is still alive inside. This is a key scene that resonates throughout the film, illustrating the fundamental differences in these characters and their approach to similar ends.  

The character exchanges are all lean and naturalistic, free of superfluous dialogue and framed in careful compositions. The overall effect is a slow-burn that gives the early proceedings a surface mundaneness to contrast with the growing tension as the operation approaches. That steady momentum and the scene in which they attach explosives to the wall of the dam are wrought with the kind of suspense Alfred Hitchcock would have applauded.

Thereafter is the problem
The problems follow thereafter, both for the characters and the audience. Following their attempted sabotage, and the nationwide media coverage of the event, the characters become guilt-ridden and anxious about their involvement. As their resolve begins to unravel, so does the narrative engine. The three disband and we’re left to follow Josh as he returns to his work at an organic farm co-operative, where he apparently sorts vegetables. 

Eisenberg, who dazzled in his role as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg in The Social Network (2010), is fast revealing himself to have remarkable consistency. The confident arrogance that served his character so well in The Social Network seems to resurface in many other roles he plays. However, while this repetition may contribute to a rising sense of tedium here, Eisenberg isn’t solely to blame. 

The problem lies in that we no longer have the promise of an approaching incident – certainly there is the character’s threat of exposure, but there’s no specific event or timeframe and no distinct narrative movement in any direction. And yet the pace continues at slowly as before, still employing that same sparseness in its drama. This restraint, which was initially compelling, becomes frustrating, applying a slightness and simplicity to the entire endeavour. Long before the film ends, we cease to care.

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