The best movies by director Kelly Reichardt ( Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff) center on people dealing with personal issues against an uncaring world, be it the unsettled West, rural Oregon or the merciless attitude of insular small towns toward homeless people. In Night Moves, her latest and most accessible picture, the Miami-born filmmaker turns the formula upside-down. This is the story of three aggressive activists — Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), Dena (Dakota Fanning) and Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) — who are planning to blow up a hydroelectric dam that is causing ecological harm to the surrounding environment. They don’t intend to hurt anyone: The first half of the movie, which meticulously details how they prepare to carry out their plan, makes it clear their only intent is to send a strong message.
In Reichardt’s usual manner, we only get glimpses of her protagonists’ past: Josh is a farmworker, Dena is a high school dropout, and Harmon is ex-military. What matters is not who they are, exactly, but how well they work together and how driven they are by their righteous mission. Night Moves, which takes its title from the boat they use to carry out their plan, only gives us traces of their personalities. When Josh and Dena come across a mortally wounded doe on the highway, he pulls over to inspect the animal and notices it’s still warm. “She’s pregnant,” he says before pushing her into the woods. There’s nothing he can do for the creature, but the subtle sorrow in his voice is pointed.
Reichardt’s movies are often criticized for a lack of plot: Wendy and Lucy, for instance, consisted largely of Michelle Williams searching for her missing dog, the only thing she had left in the world that was hers. But even though Night Moves is slow when compared to your typical thriller, there’s a propulsion to the story that feels different (and is welcome) for the director.
At times, the film is reminiscent of The East, 2013’s inferior thriller about a cult of eco-activists directed by Zal Batmanglij, but that movie was far more expansive and broader in reach and scope (and much less effective in the end). In Night Moves, Reichardt keeps her characters close and up front, so when differences arise in their ranks and signs of vague trouble arise, the suspense starts to mount quietly.
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Don’t expect Hitchcock or De Palma here — Reichardt is much too low-key and modest for such crowd-pleasing pyrotechnics — but one long, sustained shot near the end seems to suggest that people who are convinced they are doing the right thing are capable of great evil. Sometimes, they think the innocent must die for the greater good, which might be true in war, but not here.