Blowup: Eco-Terrorists Face a Moral Dilemma in ‘Night Moves’

A tense, mysterious thriller that morphs into a kind of horror movie with shades of a Dostoyevsky novel.

Jesse Eisenberg in Night Moves.
Jesse Eisenberg in Night Moves.

It would be easy to mistake Kelly Reichardt’s latest film, Night Moves, written in conjunction with Jonathan Raymond, for an inert piece of cinema. Her movies, critically acclaimed but without much popular success, aren’t for everyone. Not a lot happens in them. 

Night Moves ★★
(3/4 stars)

Written by: Jonathan Raymond and Kelly Reichardt
Directed by:
Kelly Reichardt
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard
Running time: 112 min.

If you like them, you will appreciate that Night Moves begins as a tense, mysterious thriller and morphs into a kind of horror movie with shades of a Dostoyevsky novel. You will savor its nuanced beauty, its naturalistic feel and its attention to simple sounds: boots on gravel, bird song, a car door closing, cabbage being reaped, the stroke of a paddle through water. You will take pleasure in the performances of three top-notch actors—Dakota Fanning, who has matured into a fine young film star, Jesse Eisenberg, frighteningly brooding, and the always excellent Peter Sarsgaard.

Together, they constitute a trio of eco-terrorists intent on sabotaging a hydroelectric dam in Oregon, where three of Ms. Reichardt’s previous films—Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff—have been set. Ms. Reichardt casts the land as a moonscape of twisted trees, brown fields and marshes, enhancing the film’s eeriness. “It’s gotta be big,” Mr. Eisenberg’s Josh, a grave character, says of the explosion they’ve planned. And it is.

The movie takes its name from the motorboat, rigged with a fertilizer bomb, that the radicals use to blow up the dam—not, as you may have guessed, the Bob Seger song. (Instead, we are treated to an intermittently haunting soundtrack by Jeff Grace, whose music for Jim Mickle’s recent film, Cold in July, was equally unsettling.) Fittingly, the movie’s most climactic moments happen at night. Ms. Reichardt does a stand-up job building suspense, with pockets of action here and there, before the sabotage and, most notably, after, when the activists have returned to their daily lives only to find that the explosion brought some unexpected collateral damage.

Fear and paranoia set in for all three characters, but the film centers on the inscrutable Josh as he resumes work on a communal farm, stained by his moral transgression. The resulting portrait of Josh as he grapples with his conscience over a succession of days, staring off into the distance, his brow furrowed with worry, is the movie’s disquieting triumph.

Blowup: Eco-Terrorists Face a Moral Dilemma in ‘Night Moves’