“Do I really look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it. You know? I just do things.”
—The Joker (Heath Ledger) in The Dark Knight (2008)
Note: This review contains spoilers.
Night Moves is the kind of thriller where everyone broods and not a lot is said. If one were to imagine a less talkative take on the filmography of David Fincher (particularly films like Zodiac and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), she would not be far off in describing Kelly Reichardt‘s latest cinematic venture. Using the gorgeous Pacific Northwest as a backdrop, captured stunningly by cinemaphotographer Christopher Blauvelt, Reichardt depicts the tale of three radical environmentalists from Oregon who seek to blow up a major river dam.
Focusing on moments of tense silence (which make up the majority of the film), on conversations in the shade of Oregon’s tall evergreens, and on the eerily placid river where the bombing takes place, Reichardt weaves a tale of palpable intrigue and suspense. Almost every decision made by the ecoterrorist trio, comprised of Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), Dena (Dakota Fanning), and Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), feels as if it’s the linchpin of the plot. Reichardt makes the audience feel the gravity of every step in the plan, which makes the long stretches of silence all the more tense.
However, what’s most disturbing about the use of silence in Night Moves is not the Hitchockian thriller echoes it gives off, though those are indeed quite strong. Rather, the limited dialogue of the film, and the intense directive with which the trio plots out the bombing, highlights just how many unproven assumptions the trio has made in determining both the justness and the efficacy of the plot to blow up the dam.
Given the steely gazes and glum facial expressions of Josh, Dana, and Harmon, it’s clear they take their task seriously; the decision to undergo the bombing is not one they take lightly. Nevertheless, there’s an uncertainty right at the core of Night Moves, as well as the very motivations of the trio.
The assumptions that ostensibly justify the bombing begin at the film’s opening. After watching an environmentalist documentary with a group of people, Dana and Josh witness as a Q&A unfolds. One man reasonably suggests, “I feel like if you bombard people with too many horrific images… it’s like, ‘It’s too late.’ Or, ‘Too much to take on.'” He gets no response. Following him, Dana raises the question, “I’m curious what it is exactly you think we’re supposed to do. Do you have some sort of big plan?”
The director’s answer doesn’t please Dana. Despite the heightened rhetoric signaling the impending doom of the world that forms much of her film’s content, the director answers Dana saying, “I personally think the ‘big plan’ thinking leads to a lot of the problems we’re facing. The idea for me is thinking that there’s not just one big thing. I’m not focused on the big plans, I’m focused on the small plans… a lot of small plans.”
“Small plans”, however few or many, is clearly not a solution in Dana’s mind, for it does not stop her or Josh on the path to blowing up the dam. As Dana, Josh, and Harmon approach the dam on the evening of the bombing, Dana gives what is the only justification provided by the trio for the bombing in the entire film.
“By 2048 the oceans are going to be empty,” she says.
Harmon replies, “Says who?”
Her response needs only one word: “Science.” And where did Dana learn this science? “The one good class I took in college,” she says confidently.
There are several hints prior to this moment that the rationale for the dam bombing is incomplete at best. When Dana makes this admission, it becomes clear that there’s hardly an argument to justify their actions. This is where Night Moves becomes most effective in its storytelling; the film is not a simple case of the tense tale of a highly planned crime, but rather an illustration of what happens when an ideology so compels people to do things that actively undermine said ideology.
The “science” that Dana claims justify the trio’s actions is never substantiated, nor is there any indication that Dana, Josh, or Harmon have done any actual research (beyond “one good college class”) as to whether or not bombing a dam would be efficacious either for the environment or the cause of environmentalism writ large. None of the three think about what harm might be caused by blowing up a dam and causing overflow on that stretch of the river, which might upset the biodiversity that managed to establish itself around the dam. They don’t calculate what political changes might actually occur as a result of the bombing.
Motivated only by an abstract concern for the environment, substantiated only by a vaguely defined scientific consensus, it’s no wonder things end up the way they do for the trio.
Unsurprisingly, the law of unintended consequences kicks in. Despite waiting until well after midnight to detonate the bomb, the next day it’s revealed to the group that there was a man sleeping on the riverbed near the dam, and following the bombing his body went missing. A few days later, it’s revealed that the explosion killed the man, the river taking his body far from his sleeping place.
This news is devastating to Dana; the remainder of Night Moves consists of Josh and Harmon panicking that the death of the man will weigh on Dana so heavily that she will divulge their crime to the police. But perhaps more devastating is what Josh hears when he attempts to return to work the day after the bombing as if nothing happened. His place of employment, a community farm, becomes a place for debate following the bombing. When Josh walks into the staff kitchen for breakfast, he hears the head of the farm complain to a staff member who continues to try to justify the bombing as a “message” being sent to those in power.
“They’re [the bombers] idiots, that’s all”, the man says. “Sure, they had a fine point, but one dam, who cares? That river has ten dams on it. The grid is everywhere… you’d need to take down like twelve dams to make a difference. Doesn’t do anything.”
When someone rebuts him by saying that the bombing sends an important message, he replies, “It’s a statement. I’m not interested in statements, I’m interested in results.”
The dissenter has a quick response: “You don’t call that results?” He replies, “I call it theater.”
This, above all else, is the success of Reichardt’s film. Though the intense stares of Eisenberg and the pervasively brooding mood of the film do suffer the fate of diminishing returns toward the movie’s conclusion, what this constant tension illustrates is what the environment an ideological political actor faces when no justification is provided for his actions. Night Moves is the theatre of political theatre.
In this political theatre, everything hangs in the balance; all it takes is one single thing to go wrong and the entire plan becomes undone. For Josh, Dana, and Harmon, the death of a human being, whether they foresaw it or not, is the one loose cog that upset whatever it is they thought their plan might achieve.
Because the trio is motivated not by a political strategy with a thought out metric for success but instead a blinding ideology—”save the environment at any cost”—it’s no surprise that their actions cause the undoing of the very environments they live in. Dana becomes riddled with guilt to the point of self-mutilation. The workers at the community farm Josh works at come to distrust him, forcing him in the end to go on the run. Harmon, meanwhile, remains somewhere off in the distance, hidden, removed completely from the world he is trying to save.
In the end, after leaving Oregon for fear of getting caught, Josh applies for a job at an outdoor supplies store. This type of store, of course, is a perfect example of capitalist ideology: although ostensibly meant for the person who prefers “nature as it is” to the paved streets and suburbias of capitalist America, the very nature of buying and selling goods within a capitalist system undermines any authenticity the “outdoor life” sold by these stores could have.
Try as he may to untether himself from the world where multinational corporations destroy the environment, in undergoing an ideologically reactionary form of violence, Josh and his cohorts only played into the system at hand. A system built on violence knows well how to respond to violence against it. This is what all of the tension-building and thriller theatrics of Reichardt’s direction build up to: the realization that sometimes radical action is hardly radical at all.
No extras are included on either the Blu-ray or DVD release of the film.