In Kelly Reichardt’s astonishingly good thriller Night Moves, a trio of environmental activists gets trapped in a political and deadly morass of their own making. Played by Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard, they demonstrate to a fault what happens when passion for a cause is trumped by human frailty.
The film opens on a majestic dam in Oregon, a beautiful work of engineering mastery which Josh (Eisenberg), Dina (Fanning) and Harmon (Sarsgaard) plan to blow up. Though their reasons for bombing it are a little vague (one hears a sentence containing the words “multi-national corporations” and “poisoning”), their plot seems as fool-proof as their dedication to the planet is admirable.
Josh and Dina (who could be a couple but aren’t) purchase a sleek speedboat that they eventually hollow out and pack with fertilizer rich with ammonium nitrate, and there’s a great scene where Dina bluffs her way through a large purchase of the stuff that has become in recent times a controlled substance. When they show up at the lakeside marina where they plan to embark, they’re flustered by the crowds of vacationers but resolute. They maneuver their floating time bomb up to the dam, set the timer for thirty minutes, and quickly paddle away in the canoe they’ve been hauling.
Reichardt’s decision to not show the explosion is a wise one, as it’s more powerful to see the culprits’ facial features flinch at the boom. A day or so later, word leaks out that a camper is missing and their vow to separate and keep their distance, lest they arouse suspicion, disentangles. Though Harmon seems less bothered by the collateral damage, Dina and Josh are quite upset. Harmon reports in a furtive phone call to Josh that “Dina’s not doing so great.” Josh, too, is crumbling, and Eisenberg gives an indelible performance as a man so pained with paranoia he seems to be on the verge of imploding.
Kelly Reichardt, who co-wrote the movie with Jonathan Raymond) is one of the few female directors who can get her movies made – perhaps because they’re so good. Wendy and Lucy (2008) was a bittersweet portrait of a lonely, unmoored woman (Michelle Williams) who spends the entire movie looking for her lost dog; Williams headlined again in the terrific feminist western Meek’s Cutoff, which topped many lists in 2010. Night Moves is sure to be accordingly ranked this year, as it is one of 2014’s best films.