Ecoterrorism, the subject of Kelly Reichardt’s “Night Moves,” is a tricky topic to think about.
For many of us, the wanton destruction of the environment — with no thought for the future or the welfare of other living creatures — is tantamount to a capital offense. It is senseless, idiotic, and — most maddening of all — out of our control. I can understand the temptation to become a vigilante and do what politicians and businessmen are too scared to do.
This is the topic of “Night Moves” — a tense, unsettling film that uses the passions and convictions of ecoterrorism to explore guilt and how we handle our lives falling apart.
Three unlikely partners hatch a plan to blow up a local dam. Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) is a troubled and humorless man living on an agricultural co-op. Dena (Dakota Fanning) is a college dropout who bankrolls the operation out of her trust fund. Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) is a former Marine. We follow them through the two phases of the act: the buildup and the inevitable consequences.
Josh is the leader and the focus of the film. He’s the most passionate and deliberate of the three, but Reichardt and Eisenberg make him too relatable for him to be evil. You know where he is coming from. His motive for destroying the dam is clear — he muses that it is killing all the salmon so that you can run your fu***ng iPod all day. His chemistry with Dena and Harmon is expertly placed on the edge of confrontational. Eisenberg gives all he can to the role and is excellent. He manages to be vulnerable and intimidating at the same time.
The theme of technology and convenience destroying nature is powerfully shown through the cinematography. “Night Moves” is a beautifully composed movie. One memorable sequence shows serene, silent mountains and rivers before cutting to a blaring bulldozer on a landfill.
Reichardt’s feel for the natural world is appropriate for as real a movie as this. There are no thriller cliches — the majority of the screen time is quiet dialogue. Tension is built instead through a growing sense of dread. Enough little things go wrong that I thought the plan wouldn’t work — that they would be caught or killed.
The last scene will seem unsatisfactorily ambiguous to some but to me, the best endings leave you thinking and analyzing. Reichardt didn’t need to tidily wrap it up. “Night Moves” is a great film that will be in my mind for a while.
I give it four stars out of five.
[A version of this story ran on page 8 on 6/11/2014 under the headline "Friday at The Hipp: ‘Night Moves’"]