I've gotta be honest with you: it took me a while to “get” the ending of Kelly Reichardt's Night Moves. It's one of those endings that have become increasingly popular in indie film over the past decade or so – the sort of ending that isn't really an ending at all. Rather than reaching some sort of traditional climax, the movie just stops, leaving the audience to argue about what happens next and what it's all supposed to mean. This approach can work beautifully at times (No Country for Old Men and Reichardt's own Meek's Cutoff spring to mind), but this time I was a little baffled. Did I miss something? Did I see what I was supposed to see, but fail to put the pieces together? Was the screenplay just lazy? I felt unsatisfied by the closing moments, but they stayed with me. I slept on it. The next day, as I was running through the final shots in my mind, something clicked. You know what? It's a good ending, one that a number of earlier scenes have successfully laid the groundwork for. It just took me a while to see it - it's one of “those” endings.
The journey to that ending is slow and subtle, but certainly less opaque. The film spotlights three would-be environmental terrorists making plans to blow up a large dam. We don't know much about the personal histories of these three people, but we observe their behavior and learn a good deal about them by watching the way they interact with each other. Josh (Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network) is tense, humorless and snippy. Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard, An Education) is charming and relaxed. Dena (Dakota Fanning, Man on Fire) is relatively new to this life, and demonstrates more hesitance than her companions.
Though it takes a while to get a good read on these characters, I'm impressed by the way Reichardt consistently avoids stuffing clumsy exposition into the mouths of her characters. These people never tell each other things they already know, so we're required to learn by observation. Sure, sometimes they'll say something that gives us a big clue – we hear that Dena comes from a wealthy family, and that Harmon has a criminal record – but much of the information we're given is purely visual. The film doesn't spoon-feed us anything, but it rewards our attentiveness to the clothes these characters wear, the places they live and the way they interact with other people.
The film's first half is often tense in a Breaking Bad/Blue Ruin sort of way (though admittedly never quite that tense), as these amateur criminals clumsily attempt to carry off a dangerous, high-stakes act of eco-terrorism. One of the film's most memorable (and nerve-jangling) sequences involves Dena attempting to buy some fertilizer from a cautious merchant (James Le Gros, Mildred Pierce), while the staging of the actual bombing plays out like a terrifically tense silent (well, mostly silent) short film. Night Moves certainly doesn't offer the propulsive rhythms of a conventional thriller, but it's attentive and absorbing in a way conventional thrillers usually aren't.
Night Moves trades one sort of tension for another in the second half, when it shifts from crime plots to psychological terrors. Paranoia, guilt and suspicion begin to grip all three members to varying degrees, and their assorted reactions prove the most revealing pieces of character development. Reichardt zeroes in on Josh during this stretch of the film, and Eisenberg's performance – which had previously seemed oddly indistinct – turns into something complex, scary and a little heartbreaking. Is he troubled by the things he has done? Maybe, but he's more troubled by how little he accomplished. “You'd have to blow up a dozen dams – maybe a hundred – to make an actual difference,” someone says. The cost of his endeavor may not have been worth the reward... and the cost keeps growing higher each day.
This isn't an environmental film in the traditional sense – Reichardt doesn't seem particularly concerned with inspiring people to save the planet. It's a movie about the feelings of overwhelming futility that come with attempting to make the world a better place. The film suggests that real change may require extreme action, but that extreme action comes with its own set of equally extreme consequences. Josh, Dena and Harmon have done more to fight for what they believe in than most of us will ever do. What is their reward? What is society's reward? What changes? The answer to all three questions is the same.
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 112 minutes
Release Year: 2014