Ambiguous Activism: Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves (2013) – Blu-ray review
Slackers get serious, as Reichardt charts the queasy ambiguities of direct action amongst counter-cultural activists – a thriller of unusual intellectual substance.
(Kelly Reichardt, 2013)
Few filmmakers ever truly work off-the-grid; the medium is too expensive and too communal for that. Kelly Reichardt, though, is an exception, an American director working (nominally, at least) in well-worn genres – the road movie, the Western and, this time, the thriller – but in such a minimalist approach she’s almost perpendicular to the norm. Filmmaking doesn’t even pay the bills, as Reichardt’s day job is lecturing; that’s how off-the-grid she is.
Given that background, it is apt that Reichardt seems to favour characters who are similarly inclined – the campers of Old Joy; unemployed girl-and-dog combo Wendy And Lucy. In Meek’s Cutoff, her 18th century pioneers were literally off grid, having got lost in the wilderness. With Night Moves she is back in the present day but her (anti-)heroes remain at odds with the mainstream, dreaming of an alternative to everyday society.
Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), Dena (Dakota Fanning) and Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) are drop-outs from capitalist America, living in the countryside, working for agricultural co-operatives, sticking it to The Man. They are also eco-terrorists, plotting to blow up a dam – a sub-set of a sub-set, a dot in the Venn diagram of American subcultures. In any major studio pic, they’d be the villains but Reichardt watches dispassionately, eager to show the extremes to which people will live to portray their incompatibility with the status quo.
On one level, this is a thriller… and an often agonisingly tense one, as the bombers attempt to buy fertiliser and transport the titular bomb-laden boat to the dam. Reichardt achieves one compelling set-piece when a random stranger inadvertently gets in the way, and isn’t above the old chestnut of the car engine that won’t start. But this is a far more metaphysical film, probing the people who do this – genuinely interested in how, what and why. There’s no CGI spectacle here; instead, Reichardt keeps the camera on the faces of those involved.
The result is a truly psychological thriller, one that interrogates the moral ambiguities of the characters’ position. Early on, an activist film poses the question of whether the anti-capitalist movement should have one big plan or lots of small ones. Is this bomb plot one or the other – a symbolic statement of dams breaking everywhere, or a haphazard (and hazardous) freakshow to the slow-burn, long-term education offered by Josh’s co-operative?
Reichardt plays it both ways. On the one hand, her calm, documentary-style approach portrays the harmony and positivity of such places without the right-on hectoring of so many activist films, but as seen through the eyes of Eisenberg’s passionate zealotry, it’s easy to see how this might be regarded as not going far enough. Yet the alternative is a kind of existential loneliness driven by guilt and paranoia, in which the bosom of the counter-culture cannot be embraced. Reichardt’s camera isolates the trio through space and through light (the “night” of the title is well earned) and eventually even from each other, as Josh discovers the ultimate irony of where an off-the-grid guy has to go to go truly off-the-grid.
Night Moves is released on Blu-Ray and DVD on Monday 12th January.
Tagged 2014 films