With Night Moves Kelly Reichardt has solidified her place among my favorite American directors working today. A crossover in any sense of the word, this film is not only her most accessible in terms of story, but also her most significantly evolved work of art, a character study cum film noir that recontextualizes the genre’s tropes into a claustrophobic masterpiece (with a welcome air of cynicism), that simultaneously observes and comments on the fine line between progressivism and anarchy. It’s also a major indication of the power and control a director has over his/her work, and one of the greatest arguments for having final cut that contemporary cinema has ever seen.
The film begins quite brilliantly in medias res, as Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard are in the process of pulling off a major eco-terrorist attack, blowing up a dam that is restricting the flow of water and affecting the fish population, we assume in favor of capitalist interests. All three of them are way ahead of the audience, and Reichardt uses this privilege to tease the story slowly out of the situation, while we study the characters.
Eisenberg’s Josh is the loner misfit who works and lives at a farmer’s co-op, which I should probably confess a covetousness for, as a type of sublime dream existence I only hope myself in a parallel universe has taken advantage of, but which the realities of life choices and societal demands in reality makes such a thing impossible, though impressionable enough in the film to make the ending a powerhouse. Josh is also one who clearly suppresses his desire to pursue human, more “socially acceptable,” needs (things like relationships, etc) to pursue his big shot at “making a difference.” Fanning is the bank roller of the operation, who sees any obstacle as black or white when trying to overcome it. And Sarsgaard is the ringleader, the one we assume has done something like this many times before, or is it just a persona he’s able to indulge now that he has accomplices to hitch his wagon to? These traits all rise to the surface through small, ingenious moments of disagreement between the three, and the generous moments of quiet reflection and nuance Reichardt affords them, such the magnificent moment when Eisenberg pauses outside a house a few moments longer than it takes for him to hear Fanning and Sarsgaard having sex inside, before he turns and walks out into the woods, seemingly unphased.
To end this film with the incident, and make it the totality of the story, would be to waste all this precious character development. No, Reichardt has other things in store, unfolding a far more conventional, psychological thriller where paranoia, uncertainty, and rage bubbles up from beneath the surface, compounded by how much we have grown to understand these characters. There is a close-up of Jesse Eisenberg’s face in this part of the film that is in the same league as the best work of Hitchcock or Chabrol. That Reichardt is able to pull off such tension after what appears to be yet another studied, observational, character piece (though I will always admit to feeling an unease at the director’s Old Joy, bracing myself for some sort of physical, cathartic act), is nothing sort of monumental, and only someone with complete control over their artistic vision every step from mind to silver screen could pull off so singularly.
Eisenberg has never been better, making his turn as Mark Zuckerberg appear as child’s play. He won’t be remembered at the Oscars next year, but he should be. Fanning and Sarsgaard are both exceptional as well. Reichardt has always coaxed marvelous performances out of her actors in front of the camera. Behind the camera she has always been resolute and uncompromising. And I haven’t seen a better example of it than the final shot of Night Moves. I don’t want to give anything away, but suffice it to say it inextricably links poetic justice with an observable truth in our world today about how easy it is to become that which we despise. I can’t imagine a big studio producer alive allowing that final shot. It’s tricky, and superficially head-scratching, but it unlocks doors to understanding this film. Night Moves is one the best artistic achievements in film this year.
The Verdict: Rave