Movie Review: ‘Night Moves’ broods over non-thrilling consequences

Road to ruin: Dakota Fanning and Jesse Eisenberg in
Road to ruin: Dakota Fanning and Jesse Eisenberg in"Night Moves."

‘Night Moves’
★★★

You don’t see the big explosion in “Night Moves.” You don’t even hear it, except for a soft “whump” sound way off in the distance.

What you do get in this slow-moving, painfully realistic pseudo-thriller is its aftermath, a shock wave that disrupts the lives of the main characters in ways they never imagined.

“Night Moves” is a study of righteous intentions gone terribly wrong. Co-written and directed by indie auteur Kelly Reichardt (“Wendy and Lucy,” “Meek’s Cutoff”), who specializes in everyday characters struggling with overwhelming circumstances, it involves us first in a radical act that’s ethically motivated — then dire consequences and disillusionment.

Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) is a mostly silent, brooding farm hand at an agricultural co-op near Portland. Dena (Dakota Fanning) is a comparatively upbeat and outgoing worker at a new age spa. They are deeply concerned about environmental issues. So much so that they conspire to blow up a local hydroelectric dam.

Dena uses money from her family to buy a sport boat named Night Moves and they transport it deep into the woods where Josh’s ex-Marine/ex-convict friend Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) is waiting to turn it into a large, floating bomb.

The first half of “Night Moves” is devoted to watching their plan take shape, as they contrive to acquire buy 500 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, mix it with the necessary ingredients, stow it in the boat and maneuver it into position next to the dam. And a certain amount of suspense develops, in addition to a certain amount of complicity as we naturally find ourselves rooting for their success. Very little ideology is expressed, however (compared to last year’s much less emotionally affecting eco-thriller “The East”), aside from one mumbled statement from Josh that the dam is endangering salmon “so people can run their iPods 24/7.” There are no manifestos in “Night Moves,” beyond the hope that something big, like blowing up a dam, will make people start thinking.

No such luck, however. Two devastating things happen after that muffled explosion is heard while Dena and Josh drive away from the dam—immediately seeming overwhelmed by the enormity of what they’ve done. First they learn that their actions caused much more harm than they intended. And then that there radical action has quickly become yesterday’s news. Even in their own radical community, where it’s dismissed as “theater” by one observer, pointing out that it was only one of 10 dams on that river.

Their crime remains a very large part of Josh and Dena’s lives, however, as Reichardt shifts “Night Moves” out of low-key thriller mode and into a personal hell of guilt and paranoia. Another type of sickly suspense develops as Josh begins to fear that Dena will crack under the strain and perhaps confess. That’s classic film-noir material, but Reichardt has something much less stylized in mind here and ultimately more frustrating when it becomes apparent that her agenda doesn’t include a neatly resolved ending.

She’s after the sort of feelings ordinary people might have when faced with the consequences of such an enormous mistake — including the realization that it will never, ever go away.

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