Night Moves, a decidedly didactic feature from Kelly Reichardt, is a film that is set deliberately within the closed-off minds of its protagonists, a set of eco-terrorists set on blowing up a dam in Oregon. Because of this lack of an outside, Reichardt does not offer an easy set of morality and politics to offer up to create a point of comparison. The closest the film ever comes to creating an antagonist is a local fertilizer seller who simply wants to follow the government’s rules about needing to send in a social security number in order to purchase the substance. Instead, Reichardt’s critique is crafted through her trademark minimalism, a film that examines the ripples of a pure ideology. The film’s protagonist Josh, played by a phenomenally minimal Jesse Eisenberg, is brimming with paranoia at every second. But he’s also rarely looking past the frame.
Using a genre for something more crafty and subdued was also buried deep within Riechardt’s last feature, Meek’s Cutoff, a Western with a shift of power so subtle it was lost on many audience members. Night Moves seems to be having somewhat of a similar reaction, with the recognizable genre elements overpowering her real motivations (there is also an issue that the director has decided to attack a liberal cause, a facet many critics have labored on). The totality of the director’s intentions are present throughout, especially during an early sequence when Josh and Dena (Dakota Fanning) meet up with their fellow conspirator Harlon (Peter Saarsgard) at a local diner. Each can’t trust the other, raising issues to each other about the loyalty of the other to the mission. These people are looking inward, not outward, and Riechardt always positions one against two within the frame.
Certainly Josh never looks outward—whenever he does, his perception is warped by his fundamentalist beliefs. As Vadim Rizov notes of a scene where the young man visits inside a wealthy home, “We see his neighborhood through Josh’s angry eyes: the backyard waterfall is a clear misallocation of resources, the golf on TV the final insult…Night Moves makes it easier to view the everyday world’s physical components through perpetually, justifiably aggrieved environmentalist eyes.” Josh only sees things for their use, and even his ambiguous relationship with Dena (Dakota Fanning) is mostly as an object (her rich Connecticut father is unknowingly funding their entire operation). The young girl's own beliefs are fundamentally flawed, as she postulates on the future destruction based on (one) college class she took. As one montage sequence shows, there might actually be very little to differentiate these people from those who use the parkgrounds for recreation. They just don't realize it.
The idea that Night Moves is originally endorsing its protagonists goals and methods, as some have claimed, is fundamentally flawed. Because of Reichardt’s minimalism in both plot and tone, there’s no sense that we are supposed to want them to succeed. Riechardt’s staging is one of work—the camera there captures the material essence of their process: loading armed fertilizer, attaching boats to trucks, and planning every detail (or at least freaking out about those details). They remain centered within themselves, and Reichardt plays it as such. When it comes to the deed, a Hitchcockian placed flat tire plays out entirely in long shot, putting us wholly within the environmentalists' head spaces. But they never grapple with the practicalities of their ideology—Josh makes a remark about society destroying salmon in favor of keeping their iPods running, but it seems like a false remark based on little he sees. Even the bombing itself becomes a metaphor—they simply stare straight as the camera stays focused on their unblinking faces. If they’re also Marxists, they may want to go check the chapter about products of our labor.
Instead, as the world slowly opens up to Josh’s family, as well as an unintended consequence of the bombing, the convictions of these ideology give way to personal and moral convolutions. Reichardt emphasizes these slowly—Dena is seen scratching herself right after the bombing, which develops into a rash (only seen in soft focus), to full out hives. It’s this kind of physical detail, never overstated, but crucial to her character, that Reichardt layers within, making the terrifying climax psychologically justified as well as intensely thrilling.
If Night Moves does ultimately divulge into a “crime doesn’t pay” message, it is one that comes with extra baggage and political consequences than something that simplistic. Josh doesn’t go to jail for his actions, he instead forced to reintegrate himself into the system. His surrogate father explains that their environmental goals have never been to change the world, simply create their own little sanctuary. Josh can’t live with that, so he’s forced into (what else but) an outdoor camping gear store and filling out a job application. In a mirror, he spies on two women, both taking time out of their shopping experience to check their iPods.