Review first published by EyeForFilm
After watching an amateur film on the damage humanity is wreaking on the environment, Dena (Dakota Fanning) asks the filmmaker Jackie (Clara Mamet), “I’m curious what you think it is exactly that we’re supposed to do. Do you have some sort of big plan?”
“I’m not focused on big plans,” replies Jackie. “I’m focused on small plans – a lot of small plans.”
It is an idea that will recur in Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves, if perhaps not quite in the way that Jackie intends. In the film’s first half, we see just such a small plan being realised. Pretending to be a couple, Dena and Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) pay cash for a second-hand motor boat, and drive with it through the night to the trailer home of Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) on the outskirts of Bend, Oregon. The next morning Dena uses her wits to convince a reluctant clerk (James Le Gros) in a produce yard to sell her 500lb of ammonium nitrate fertiliser, even though she lacks the appropriate identification and it is a controlled substance. The ecologically minded trio then converts the boat into a floating bomb, and takes it upstream to blow up the Green Peter Dam. All this is presented as Melvillean cinema of process, taut, lean and fuss-free – although we might also notice, half-buried in the spare economy of the narrative, a different kind of tension emerging from the interpersonal triangle that these eco-terrorists form.
Shortly after this action has been carried out, Josh’s boss and host Sean (Kai Lennox) delivers a brutal critique of it. Sean considers blowing up just one dam on a river where there are many more – and in an area where the only viable alternative to hydroelectric power is a ‘nuke plant’ – to be nothing but ‘theatre’. “You need to take down 12 dams to make a difference,” Sean says. “[or] 100. It doesn’t do anything.” For Sean, Jackie’s “lot of small plans” is a futile, ill-conceived exercise, whereas his own long-term work in Community Supported Agriculture is a more realistic vehicle for change.
Though unfolded with great suspense, the small plan of Josh, Dena and Harmon goes off swimmingly – until, that is, their action has an unforeseen consequence, which leads into the second half of the film, and a second small plan, carried out with a similarly amateurish efficiency to an even more questionable end. The parallels and symmetries between the two actions are plain – and point to further consequences to come. There is also a hint, in the film’s final, reflected image of a woman drinking a chain-store coffee and a man using his cellphone, that despite all Josh’s desperate efforts, nothing (beyond a few lives) has significantly changed, and Josh himself continues to be part of the consumerist model he so despises.
The punning title – taken from the expressly punning name of the boat (“We could have got Gone Fishin’ or Wet Dream, but those sounded kind of lame,” comments Dena, “Reel Wild, get it, two e’s, pretty awesome, Jamaican Me Crazy…”) – advertises a film whose key manoeuvres take place at night and whose plot of step-by-step moves and clashing personalities plays out like a chess game.
Reichardt observes the game coolly, yet provides more than enough detail to show the contradictions in her players’ gambits. It would be possible to see Night Moves as an assault on the environmental movement, but that would involve disregarding its many nuances. Here the destruction of local ecologies in the name of global capitalism and modern living is acknowledged as a real problem – but if a love of nature is (maybe) the original motor of Josh’s actions, human nature, in all its shadowy complexity, is very much the film’s focus. For even the best plans, big or small, can drift downstream into uncharted tributaries – once the floodgates have been opened.