In Kelly Reichardt’s wonderful new film (co-written with Jonathan Raymond), three people who want to do “something” about Global Warming end up creating harm in their local community and disaster in their own lives.
Delicate exploration of the razor’s edge between intentions and outcomes in our our highly interconnected 21st Century world. What has happened to the elusive “change we can believe in”…? (JLH: 4.5/5)
In act one of Night Moves, a young woman named “Jackie Christiansen” (played Clara Mamet and described in the credits as “Activist Filmmaker”) is doing a Q&A in front of a jerry-rigged screen. When she is done, the low-key group of sympatico folk thank her and it seems that will be that. But then another young woman challenges Jackie, quietly but insistently asking what’s next. “What exactly do you think we are we supposed to do?” Jackie the Activist Filmmaker has no answer other than to think small.
In this wonderful new film, writer/director Kelly Reichert — who kinda sorta looks like “Activist Filmmaker” — not only has no answers for us, she implies that the only people offering us answers are con artists.
Of course the insistent young woman who wants to do “something” starts out believing that she can make a positive contribution. Would that it were so. One of Night Moves’ primary accomplishments is to delicately explore the razor’s edge between intentions and outcomes.
The believer is named “Dena” and she is played by Dakota Fanning. Fanning, who just turned twenty in February, started acting professionally at age five, and received her first important accolade in 2002 when she was nominated for “Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role” by the Screen Actors Guild for playing Sean Penn’s daughter in I Am Sam. By 2006, Fanning had become the youngest member ever admitted to AMPAS (the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences).
Fanning is prolific. While I haven’t seen every single film listed on her IMDb page, I have seen most of them, so I can say with a good bit of confidence that Dena is Fanning’s first fully adult role. Young as she is, Fanning plays Dena with a fascinating combination of jaded innocence and deliberate emotional maturity, in marked contrast to the two other zealots — Josh and Harmon — with whom she decides to partner.
“Josh” (Jesse Eisenberg) is also in the audience at Activist Filmmaker’s screening. Dena and Josh don’t appear to know each other very well, but they travel in the same Medford (Oregon) circles and share common concerns about Global Warming and Environmental Degradation. Josh tells Dena that he knows a guy named “Harmon” (Peter Saarsgard) who learned about explosives while in the Marine Corp, and Dena — who comes from a wealthy family — agrees to bankroll the plan they have hatched.
Eisenberg, now in his early thirties, has made several films since his Oscar-nominated performance as “Mark Zuckerberg” in The Social Network a few years back, but he still seems young for his age. Eisenberg plays Josh with a lot of nervous energy. Josh wants to be taken as sincere, but he knows people sense something off about him. No matter how hard he tries to be perceived as responsible and reliable, he acts in the knowledge that he will always be an outsider.
Sarsgaard, now in his forties, has been one of my favorite actors since his big breakthrough in Boys Don’t Cry way back in 1999. If I ruled the world, he would already have several Oscar nominations (most especially for his performance as “Clyde Martin” in Kinsey in 2004). Harmon, self-contained and ironic, is Josh’s opposite. Dena shouldn’t trust him, but he is handsome and charismatic, so she lets her guard down. (While watching An Education and Lovelace, I was screaming “No! No!” And yet the Sarsgaard character in those films not only cast his spell over the girls — Carey Mulligan and Amanda Seyfried — but over their parents as well.)
The believer, the wannabe, and the charlatan — three comrades on one mission, and Reichert hold them together with exquisite tension, focusing on close-ups of their faces in scene after scene while mayhem ensues in the background. In Night Moves, the explosions that interest Reichert most happen inside her characters. There is no audience catharsis when they accomplish their goal. Everything just gets more complicated.
Kelly Reichert was born in 1964, so she was just about to turn 50 when she made this film and she brings all her life experience and hard-won wisdom to it. The huge age spread of the characters in Night Moves seems to capture something essential about this specific moment in American History (defined as the tail end of the Obama Administration). Yes, the progressive forces managed to pull themselves together to get him re-elected for a second term, but there was no joy in it. Gone was the promise of “change we can believe in.” A feeling of exhaustion has set in. We can see that the problems all around us are betting bigger, but what are we supposed to do about them?
Filmmaker Kelly Reichert has no answers, all she can do is warn us and tell us to be wary in the presence of those who promise solutions.
Middle Photo: Button from the 2008 Obama/Biden campaign.
Bottom Photo: Dena and Josh with “Harmon” (Peter Sarsgaard), an ex-Marine no longer on active duty who supposedly knows all about explosives.
Photo Credit: Tipping Point Productions/Courtesy of Cinedigm
Q: Does Night Moves pass the Bechdel Test?
No. The central POV in Night Moves belongs to Josh (who is in almost every scene). Other people tell Josh about conversations Dena has had with a character named “Anne” (Katherine Waterston). We know enough to know those conversations are not about a man… but they are also never seen on screen.
Dena does have a very brief conversation with one of her clients, but the woman doesn’t have a name and even if she did, from my POV their conversation is far too brief and insignificant to qualify.
Q: Where is this place?
Night Moves is set in Oregon. Dena and Josh live in Medford in the lush southwest corner of the state that lies west of the Cascade Mountains. Harmon lives near Bend, in the desert plains that lie east of the Cascade Mountains. The dam is located in Lake of the Woods.
SPOILER ALERT +++ June 4th Addendum +++ SPOILER ALERT
The first time I saw Night Moves was Monday May 19. That was a Critics Screening. The second time I saw Night Moves was Friday May 30. That was a screening at the Angelika followed by a Q&A with Kelly Reichert.
Something very important happened in the interim, and I’m still trying to process it.
On Friday May 23, a 22 year old man named Elliot Rodger killed six people in and around UCSB (University of California Santa Barbara) and injured thirteen more before turning his gun on himself. Based on the extensive documentation he left behind (including manuscripts, e-mail messages, and YouTube videos), Rodger seemed to be enraged by the women who had rejected him in the past, which is why he specifically targeted a sorority house.
Rodger’s misogynistic rants (“College is the time when everyone experiences those things such as sex and fun and pleasure. Within those years, I’ve had to rot in loneliness. It’s not fair. You girls have never been attracted to me. I don’t know why you girls aren’t attracted to me, but I will punish you all for it. It’s an injustice, a crime, because… I don’t know what you don’t see in me. I’m the perfect guy and yet you throw yourselves at these obnoxious men instead of me, the supreme gentleman…”) lead to a massive Twitter campaign (#YesAllWomen) which then generated considerable debate about gender politics from cyberspace up through the mainstream media.
The first time I saw Night Moves, I saw it before Rodger’s attack at UCSB, and I was focused on global issues (as reflected in my review above). The second time I saw Night Moves —after Rodger’s attack at UCSB — I was struck by all the tiny ways in which psychodynamic elements in Reichert’s screenplay (co-written with Jonathan Raymond) seemed to anticipate the UCSB tragedy.
The Josh character is the fulcrum of Night Moves. Jesse Eisenberg is in almost every scene, and the story is clearly told from his POV. Dena and Harmon would probably never have met each other had Jesse not drawn them together, and yet when they have sex (while he is off on a garbage run) watching him act out his bitter feelings of exclusion curdled my blood.
The first time I saw Night Moves, I didn’t know how the film would end. The second time I saw Night Moves, the ending carried a whole new weight of tragic inevitability for me. I can’t help feeling that if more people saw more films like Night Moves, then there might be something we could do, specifically we could begin to set limits on this insanely macho culture that is quickly bringing our planet to a catastrophic end.
I tip my hat to Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post, one of the only women film critics in the mainstream media and one of the women most vocal about the cultural danger presented by the “Celluloid Ceiling” which excludes most women from sitting in the Director’s Chair. Hornaday dared to connect the dots, and then she got raked over the coals.
Here is part of what Hornaday wrote:
“Movies may not reflect reality, but they powerfully condition what we desire, expect and feel we deserve from it… If our cinematic grammar is one of violence, sexual conquest and macho swagger — thanks to male studio executives who green-light projects according to their own pathetic predilections — no one should be surprised when those impulses take luridly literal form in the culture at large.”
With bizarre cosmic synergy, Kelly Reichert’s tiny little Indie serves as a case in point. We need to see more films by women filmmakers, films that most of people don’t even know exist.
On Friday May 9, Neighbors (the execrable film that Hornaday explicitly refers to in her column) opened in 3,279 theatres and by the end of its opening weekend, it had grossed $49,033,915. On Friday May 30, Night Moves opened in 2 theatres and by the end of its opening weekend, it had grossed $24,100.
24,100 / 49,033,915 = .004918%
How long will we let this go on???