Monday, August 18, 2014

'Night Moves' (2013) directed by Kelly Reichardt

The best films make you feel.  Whether it's exhilaration as a grimacing hero explodes a helicopter, romantic squishiness as star-crossed lovers finally realise they're perfect for each other or tear-streaked, sniffle-nosed whimpering as someone sacrifices themselves for the greater good.  Night Moves certainly induces feelings, but it's a sensation a little rarer in cinema: guilt.  Gnawing away at the foundations of your soul, the background hum that informs everything you do, the deep sucking queasiness in your belly as you try to come to terms with the consequences of your actions - yeah, that guilt.

Set within the eco-warrior counterculture, Night Moves explores the minds of those who, when confronted by the evidence of man's destruction of the planet, don't stick their heads in the sand and pretend nothing's wrong.  Jesse Eisenberg is Josh, a terse, serious young man who moves with a taut nervousness, as if he's expecting a heavy hand to fall on his shoulder at any moment.  We first meet him jockeying with the slightly more upbeat Dena (Dakota Fanning), a slumming rich girl who's dedicating her trust fund towards the cause.

One of the central problems in environmental activism is that it's extremely difficult to see what palpable effects your efforts are having.  If you spend your entire waking life protesting against CO2 emissions what difference will it make?  The ice caps will keep melting, cars will keep pumping out exhaust and fossil fuels will be being burned worldwide.  Activists can go two ways, throwing their hands up in nihilistic surrender; "fuck humanity, they're a plague and deserve everything they get" or direct action.  Josh picks direct action.

Dakota Fanning as Dena
More specifically he wants to blow up a hydroelectric dam that's screwing up some river systems.  With Dena's money and old comrade Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) handling explosives preparation he masterminds a plan to demolish it via a boat packed full fertiliser.  What follows is a scarily comprehensive and tense guide on how to make a big bomb and blow something up.  But though Josh's plan is carefully planned out, things go a bit wrong...

Reichardt's biggest asset is undoubtedly Mark Eisenberg.  He's become known for performances that radiate intelligence, brittle physicality and deeply internalised conflict. There's shades of The Social Network's Mark Zuckerberg in Night Moves, both characters desperate to impose their vision upon those around them, but trapped in passive-aggressiven suppression of his instincts.  He quickly comes into a subdued conflict with Harmon, who (sorta) steals Dena, his (sorta) girlfriend and begins to take over the leadership role in the operation.  Over the course of the film we gradually understand that the destruction of the dam is less to give industry a bloody nose and more a subconscious act to bolster his bruised, vulnerable ego.

This all comes to a head when things go wrong.  We watch with a mixture of sympathy and morbid fascination as Josh frantically tries to square his actions with his desire to be an ecological messiah.  The guilt gradually overtakes him, transforming instinctive neuroticism into straight-up paranoia.  Every car pulling up might be the cops ready to slap some bracelets on him, every wayward glance from his friends seems to read "we know what you've done".  As the film ticks on you can see guilt eating away at him like woodworm consuming a tree, leaving a fragile husk that eventually collapses into dust.

He's surrounded by a desaturated, overcast cinematic world that feels damp and seamy. Everything is slightly grubby and run-down, from the eco-commune Josh lives in to the vaguely creepy caravan his veteran co-conspirator Harmon plots in.  When we reach the woods and the dam the natural world is presented utterly without beauty.

Reichardt's take on the natural world reminds me of Herzog's conception of the "overwhelming indifference of nature".  Though man might have the ego to think he's affecting the world around him, be it through pumping out noxious fumes into the atmosphere or destroying a dam, the natural world couldn't give a toss either way.  This quiet desperation informs every frame, the characters often swallowed up by the drab, muddy world around them.  Though Night Moves is about eco-warriors it doesn't have a preachy ecological message save for that the basic impulse of humans is to destroy and consume - an impulse we realise even when we try to fight against it. Gradually our characters realise this awful truth, and Reichardt gradually dissolves the narrative into splintered, acts of low-key violence and denial.  

Night Moves isn't a fun watch, but it's consistently very very interesting.  When we're not wrapped up in the compellingly realistic psychology interplay between Eisenberg, Fanning and Sarsgaard we take a sinister interest in how to build a huge bomb or we simply grip the edges of our seat in appreciation of some wonderfully tense sequences; namely Fanning's purchase of the fertiliser or the midnight journey to the dam.

Vicariously experiencing intense guilt isn't exactly the happiest I've ever been in a cinema, but that I was feeling emotions this keenly proves that Reichardt is doing a hell of a lot right in Night Moves.  


Night Moves is released August 29th

Tags: , , , , , ,

0 Responses to “'Night Moves' (2013) directed by Kelly Reichardt”

Post a Comment

© All articles copyright LONDON CITY NIGHTS.
Designed by SpicyTricks, modified by LondonCityNights