Kelly Reichardt’s 2008 film Wendy and Lucy follows an unmoored young woman traveling to find work and living in her car with her dog. Naturally, there isn’t a lot of dialogue. Reichardt followed that up with Meek’s Cutoff, an art-house western in which she also all but silenced her characters, relying instead on long shots of the dirtied-yet-determined group as they trudge through the Oregon desert, withering in their colonial clothes. In both films, no one really needed to talk; their struggles hung heavy on their faces.
Reichardt reaches for the atmospheric again in Night Moves, the story of three militant environmentalists—but by its second half, you’ll be begging for someone to talk, to know better than to act shifty and conspicuous after committing a crime. Chiefly guilty of this is Josh (Jesse Eisenberg, whose casting may be the main misstep), a CSA farmer who, along with ex-Marine Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) and rich girl Dena (Dakota Fanning), blow up a hydroelectric dam in a dicey plan that comes close to being aborted. Though they seem to get away with it, their violent protest has unintended consequences.
Already, that’s more plot than Reichardt and longtime screenwriting collaborator Jonathan Raymond usually offer, and the opening chapters prove gripping as the three solidify their plan’s final details (including buying a $10,000 boat, courtesy of Dena’s wallet). Dena and Harmon have never met before, which adds to the tension as they work out some problems. In a real Reichardt twist, Dena won’t stop talking, always having a speech or some snark at the ready, to the point where it feels unnatural. (To better convey Dena’s seriousness, Fanning’s naturally blonde hair is dyed dark.) “Could you please shut up?” Josh finally asks her, speaking for Harmon and viewers alike.
But then everybody shuts up, and it’s infuriating. It’s reasonable that the members of the trio agree to stay away from each other after the deed is done, and the filmmakers stick to Josh’s point of view to avoid multicharacter messiness. Josh, however, is an idiot. Even if you’ve grown tired of Eisenberg’s go-to neurotic characterizations, you’ll wish he had injected some of that life into this performance. Instead, he scowls. Through the entire film. And Josh, when he returns to his commune (where a bunch of characters are introduced distractingly late), barely interacts, apparently too stupid to even try acting normal as the whole town talks about the dam. Yes, of course you should force yourself into a library before it opens when you’re a criminal suspect. Please, stare a little more emptily when anyone tries to engage you. Sink into that hoodie so that you stand out instead of seeming invisible. Well done.
Night Moves strongly recalls 2013’s The East, in which the activists were just as extreme but knew how to blend in and then disappear to achieve their destructive, covert goals. Reichardt’s film is somewhat intriguing in its stillness and dark, foreboding cinematography, but eventually turns into a bore with an unbelievable Hitchcock-ian twist that only makes it more maddening. Even the final scene disappoints, with a non-ending that’s way too casual to leave you wanting more. It’s so abrupt that, ultimately, the only true shock Night Moves delivers is the credits.