TMN Movie Review: "Night Moves"

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A drama centered on three environmentalists who plot to blow up a dam.
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Rating: R
Length: 112 minutes
Release Date: April 21, 2014
Directed by: Kelly Reichardt
Genre: Drama / Thriller

Notable indie director Kelly Reichardt takes an interesting turn in her career with "Night Moves," a political thriller that examines the consequences of naive idealism. Josh, Dena and Harmon are three radical environmentalists who want to make a stand against a hydroelectric dam that would spell doom for the area's salmon, so they decide to blow it up. Surprisingly pensive and notably dark, this film has a unique charm that may not appeal to all audiences.

Near the beginning of the film, viewers see Josh Stamos (Jesse Eisenberg) driving through the beautiful wilderness of Oregon along with his companion Dena (Dakota Fanning). Josh is an organic farmer working with a sustainable agricultural co-op, and Dena is a wealthy college dropout. When they come across a doe that was hit by a car, Josh stops the vehicle and gets out to check on her. She is already dead, and Josh realizes that she was also pregnant. Instead of trying to rescue the unborn fawn, he leaves the doe on the road and continues driving.

Minutes later, Josh and Dena's discussions reveal their ambitious plan to plant bombs on a controversial hydroelectric dam to secure the future of the local salmon and promote greater biodiversity. The two environmentalists are already late in the planning stage of their operation, and they are preparing to execute it. They get their hands on some fake IDs, acquire a small boat that they name Night Moves and meet up with the third member of their group, an ex-marine named Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) who specializes in explosives.

As they get closer to the day of their operation, Josh, Dena and Harmon face some major obstacles. They soon realize that purchasing 500 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer is not as easy as they first thought, and a person who goes missing near the dam further complicates their plans. Nonetheless, the group is determined to see things through no matter the consequences, even as Josh begins to have doubts and Dena becomes increasingly paranoid. When the time comes to blow up the dam, they discover that poor planning and radical measures have some unexpected consequences.

"Night Moves" brings an interesting combination of suspense and low-key acting to the screen, and the result is a thought-provoking film that is never preachy. The pacing and plot development in the first hour is completely enthralling, but the film begins to stumble in the last half as the plot starts to lose focus. Even in its weak moments, the film always gives viewers something to marvel at as the beautiful Oregon landscape is captured in sweeping shots.

Director Kelly Reichardt leaves her signature on this film with a heavy layer of minimalism. Although this worked well for previous films like "Old Joy" and "Meek's Cutoff," this strategy is a bit anticlimactic for the explosive plot and message that the film tries to deliver. Reichardt's techniques give "Night Moves" a special charm that makes it stand out from other thrillers. However, it is still fairly average when it comes to Tribeca festival fare.

The film is largely driven by dialogue and plot. As a result, its three protagonists are not ever fully developed or explained. Josh is decidedly angry, and his lack of compassion seems to contradict his overall objective of saving the salmon. Dena is an interesting character, but the reasons for her radical environmentalism are never brought to light. Harmon is more of a chilling, mysterious character who seems to lurk in the shadows of the film, so audiences feel no need to get to know him as much as the other protagonists. From the beginning, it is clear that the characters are meant to be archetypal. Although the cause itself is worthy, the characters themselves are a portrayal of vain, prideful efforts towards a greater ideal.

Despite its executional flaws, "Night Moves" offers up enough acting talent to bring the whole film together in a neat package. Jesse Eisenberg is convincing in his role as a serious character who has trouble understanding others, and Dakota Fanning is as charming as always. Sarsgaard is well cast in his role, portraying Harmon with just the right amount of mystery and emotion.

Overall, "Night Moves" is an interesting film that examines some important practical and philosophical issues, but its mediocre execution keeps it from rising to its full potential. Audiences looking for an action-packed thriller should approach this dialogue-heavy drama with caution, but those who love a good indie film are sure to find the flick worthwhile.