“All around the globe, an army of individual citizens must rise up and take a stand for the future, for the people, and for the planet.” A familiar call for vague action ends a generic eco-doc at the start of Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves. The small gathering applauds politely, and the documentary’s director (Clara Mamet) walks to the front of this rented room in Portland, small and hard to see against the sheet that served as a screen.
Invited to ask questions, audience members appear in shadowed close-ups, expressing concern that the parade of “horrific images” they’ve just seen suggests there’s no hope, no direction for this “army”. The camera here cuts to Dena (Dakota Fanning), raising her hand. “I’m curious, what it is exactly that we’re supposed to do?” asks. “Do you have some sort of big plan, or…?” Her question trails off, as does the answer. The director doesn’t believe in one big thing, she says, but instead hopes that “citizens” will come up with “a lot of small plans.”
With this, the film cuts again, not back to Dena, but instead to Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), standing near the back of the room. His face is barely lit, and he looks pensive, maybe, or perhaps skeptical. Cut again to another moment entirely, Josh and Dena sit in his truck, on their way out of Portland with an idea to implement one small plan. For a brief moment, though, they’re stopped in traffic and so they’re looking out on the sidewalk, specifically, at a person in a black-and-white cow suit dancing, an oversized milk carton around its neck.
As oddly divergent as they look, together these two scenes point to a central question in Reichardt’s newest movie. Dena articulates one version of that question, how might anyone effect change in a system that’s rigged to resist change? The other version has to do with what change might look like, how it might be performed or understood by people who are tired or distracted, cynical or distrustful of the cultural signs circulating all around them.
The question shapes Night Moves‘ story of political disaffection and engagement, personal dedication and distrust, such that it’s a story about that story. The eco-doc filmmaker might say too little or the milk-pitching cow might say too much, but all of their performances are also too similar, uninspiring, conventional gestures that no longer move anyone.
Josh and Dena’s small plot is not nearly so different from this as they imagine. Which is not to say it is not dramatic: they plan to explode Green Peter Dam in Linn County, Oregon. At each step, something small goes wrong and each of these “individual citizens” embodies questions you might anticipate. The third term in the scheme, Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), turns out not to have “things under control” quite as he promised, and also does have a criminal record that might put them at risk of being discovered. Dena’s earnest but also clichéd rebellion against her wealthy parents is made clear in a mix of book-lessons (she’s never been fishing, she admits, but she knows a lot about which fish are oily and their dwindling numbers) and initial mini-outrages at her partners.
Moreover, Josh provides the film with a ceaselessly reflective face, seemingly the most passive member of the trio, until he’s called on to act, at which point he’s at a loss about what to do. During the first half of Night Moves, which follows the plan’s execution (which is mostly set up before the film begins), Josh watches and waits. Dena finds a way to purchase far more ammonium nitrate fertilizer than she should be able to. Harmon sorts out the bomb’s timer, a couple of times, as it turns out, and Josh mostly drives, remaining calm at a checkpoint following the event, then making his way back to the organic farm where he lives and works.
Here he listens to news of the eco-attack, discussed by his coworkers at the farm. He doesn’t contribute to the conversation, but the camera shows his face, quietly fretful. The attack makes a statement, offers Dylan (Logan Miler). Sean (Kai Lennox), who heads the farm as much as there is a head, suggests that one dam makes little difference in the work of the grid, that electricity consumption continues to increase and the environment remains at risk. “You don’t call that results?” asks Dylan. “No,” says Sean, “I call that theater.”
It’s a indictment that hangs in the air, and over the rest of Josh’s experience in Night Moves, as he embodies the same sort of loss that consumes the protagonists of Reichardt’s previous films, including Wendy and Lucy or Meek’s Cutoff. Josh struggles to maintain his own ordered life even as it slips away. He also tries to calm and contain the visibly excitable Dena, while appeasing the increasingly remote and seemingly self-interested Harmon (Sarsgaard’s performance throughout the film’s second half consists of cryptic and sometimes chilling murmurs over Josh’s cell phone).
Josh’s sense of loss in the aftermath expands in each scene. He’s suspicious of every car that comes near the organic farm, peering out from the greenhouse, holds his breath whenever he sees headlights in his rearview mirror. He worries at the market where he’s setting up the co-op’s table, a slow-motion POV camera suggesting his fearful view of every person he sees, from the uniformed security to the kid wearing a backpack and an earring. Now, in his place of loss, everyone might know him, suspect him, want to hurt him.
And so Reichardt’s movie comes round back to its start, as Josh and Dena watch a film that might convince someone new to their circle, someone from the outside, someone angry at his parents or moved by the sight of hungry children in Mozambique or displaced black bear cubs. “A lot of small plans” might seem the most possible responses to overwhelming conditions. But even so, as Night Moves shows with so much detail and so little resolution, the consequences can be big.