Saturday, May 31, 2014

Review: "Night Moves"

Director: Kelly Reichardt
Runtime: 116 minutes

Nothing captures the effect of Night Moves quite like a simple, recurring shot in its most significant sequence. The camera sits at the front of a speed boat as it languidly, uneasily drifts toward a hydroelectric dam in the dark of night. Each return to this shot, intercut with reactions of the film's three main characters, is a masterful example of unbearable tension handled with the utmost restraint. The same is true of the film as whole. Writer/director Kelly Reichardt's seventh full length film, despite its stately pace, is a major accomplishment that delicately balances psychological drama with (relatively) traditional thriller elements. 

In the same way that David Gordon Green's Joe was the movie Jeff Nichols' Mud should have been, Night Moves feels like the more successful version of last year's Brit Marling vehicle The East. Both films revolve around environmental extremism, as well as characters caught between their ideaologies and their emotions. Yet where The East was caught between indie minimalism and marketable broad appeal, Night Moves is distinct in its voice and style. 

Despite the modest scale of her films, Reichardt is no longer a filmmaker who shies away from established names. In Wendy and Lucy, Reichardt worked wonders with actress Michelle Williams in an otherwise bare bones work. Here, she has three times as many name actors anchoring her film, and all of them do so exceptionally. 

Those three actors are, in order of importance/screentime, Jesse EisenbergDakota Fanning, and Peter Sarsgaard. Even as the film gradually pushes Eisenberg to center stage, Night Moves remains committed to its characters. Personalities are naturally established, then quietly subverted, which makes for compelling viewing despite Reichardt's typically slow approach to storytelling. Eisenberg's twitchy, reptilian nerviness is put to excellent use here, allowing his gifts to show without coming off as redundant. Whether lingering in the background or wrestling with his own moral code, Eisenberg once again shows himself to be a stellar, albeit unconventional, leading man. 

Fanning and Sarsgaard effortlessly back up Eisenberg in their wildly different roles as his accomplices. Though Fanning's sardonic aloofness at the outset is initially off-putting, the actress gracefully switches gears as the character's buried insecurities come to the surface. Watching her crumble in front of Eisenberg is not only compelling, but a fulfillment of the promise she showed when she first broke out as a young child. Sarsgaard makes a nice foil for Fanning and Eisenberg, as the trio's oldest (and military-trained) member and would-be mentor. 

Yet Night Moves would amount to little were it not for Reichardt's steady hand behind the scenes. Her work with regular writing partner Jonathan Raymond is rich with psychological drama without overstating point. The extremism on display is neither lionized nor condemned. It's simply the driving force of the story that allows Reichardt and Raymond to tell such a subtly gripping tale of desperate actions, as well as the unsettling aftermath of such actions.

Reichardt's directing takes the strong foundation laid by the script and fluidly translates it to the screen. Working with cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt (and handling editing duties herself), Reichardt makes the most of her meager budget and creates a visual experience that earns its place on the big screen. Jeff Grace's minimal, atmospheric music only enhances the superlative visual storytelling on display. Instead of straining for something epic, Night Moves unfolds with sporadically poetic moments of visual storytelling. These scenes, such as one where the activists drift through a group of bare, decaying trees, speak more elegantly than dialogue ever could in such a setting. 

The potential stumbling block for audiences will simply be whether Eisenberg's repetitive actions in the second half feel effective or indulgent. At just under two hours, Night Moves certainly takes its time reaching its open-ended conclusion, which will prove suitably gripping for some, and tediously protracted for others (count me in the former group). If you get caught up in Night Moves' slow burn, however, you're in for quite the ride. Reichardt's style is an inspired match for this sort of psychological-thriller set-up, and the way she toys with narrative structure pays off beautifully for the film's character-driven side. The director's latest may be drifting along at a leisurely rate, but enough is going on under the glassy surface to ensure that you grip your armrests just a little tighter. 

Grade: B+/A-

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