Kelly Reichardt is firmly established as one of the greatest living American directors, and Night Moves is her most accessible, plotted film to date. Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard as eco-terrorists who blow up a dam only to discover they may have inadvertently killed a camper downriver in the process, it feels like more things happen in Night Moves than happen in all her previous films put together. Thankfully, though, she has retained the tense quietness that has so wholly defined her style thus far, and Night Moves, for all its relative largeness, remains a haunting experience.
Her two previous films, Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff, are to my mind two of the greatest films of the last decade, both of them extremely low on incident but thick with atmosphere, their visual style the equivalent of a Hemingway story in its minimalism. Night Moves is much higher in incident, much of what defines Reichardt’s previous films remains. In particular, her preoccupation with processes and procedure (take a look at Wendy’s obsessive documenting of every cent she spends, or the focus on repairing a wagon wheel in Meek’s Cutoff) is still here in spades – the physical processes of preparing to blow up a dam are nicely paired with the similar procedures of the small farm on which Jesse Eisenberg’s Josh lives. Fanning and Eisenberg do a great job with the internalised emotions that define her work too, Fanning in particular giving a subtle but extremely physical performance. And Reichardt’s ability to conjure a striking image from nowhere hasn’t diminished one bit either – she can still make a pair of headlights in a rear view mirror look like a great monster stalking its prey and a library floor look like a barren wasteland.
It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what it is about Night Moves that doesn’t quite work. Perhaps its because this is her most populated film to date. Set in a small Oregon town, there are more minor characters and places than in any of her previous films, most of which only have a handful of characters in them, and the increased dialogue and interactions gives the film a busy-ness that her other films lack. It’s never clear what point Reichardt is trying to make here, either – where Wendy and Lucy was a cry for those being lost to the recession and Meek’s Cutoff was a parable on America’s colonial invaders and their treatment of its native people, it’s unclear what this film is trying to say, beyond possibly “the environment is a thing we should care about but maybe let’s not blow up a dam”.
It’s not that the film particularly needs to say something – it seems wrong to criticise a four-star film for not being a five-star one, and Night Moves is, at its highest points, a gripping thriller and a probing examination of guilt. Reichardt’s controlled-yet-soulful aesthetic still has tremendous power, but in taking on a more complicated story it feels as though some raw energy has been lost.