Saturday, September 27, 2014

Night Moves

Kelly Reichardt's Night Moves (2013) is a minimalist thriller that is surprisingly suspenseful and effective.  A young man and woman have joined with a Marine Corps bomb expert to build a nitrogen fertilizer bomb.  For reasons that are never clearly defined, the trio intend to destroy a dam located in the mountains of Oregon.  Working together they build the bomb, load the explosives into a boat, and, at night, moor it near the dam.  After some complications, the bomb is detonated.  The surge of water from the ruptured dam kills a camper downstream.  Then, as happens in all heist movies, the three conspirators begin  to suspect one another:  paranoia ensues with the result that one of them is murdered by the others.  The film ends ambiguously and in media res -- however, it is clear that this misadventure has been disastrous:  if the survivors escape arrest, they will be condemned to a life of fear and hiding.  Reichardt works with long takes and avoids dialogue; her mantra seems to be "never explain" -- as a result the audience has the pleasure (or the frustration depending upon your point of view) of working out the plot and its implications from hints and clues distributed parsimoniously throughout the film.  Her previous movie, Meekers Cutoff, was a punishing trek through austere desert, an abstract trip to nowhere that I found intensely disturbing -- everyone was always dying slowly of exhaustion and thirst.  The movie, a minimalist Western, was often dull and seemingly pointless, but it has stayed with me and left powerful impressions despite several ensuing years.  Night Moves has the same effect -- the movie is ultimately terrifying.  Using the most simple means, Reichardt forces our identification with the disaffected Josh, a kid living and working for a sustainable foods coop.  We don't know Josh's motivations for engaging in the act of eco-terrorism -- the idea is obviously half-baked and Josh doesn't seem the zealous type.  He is a loner, a cipher, and, as the film progresses, we come to share his overwhelming paranoia, his fear of detection -- by the end of the movie, every shot carries an aura of subtle, but fearsome, menace.  The film's final image, Josh looking up at a big convex mirror installed for security purposes in a camping-gear store, embodies the sense of omnipresent surveillance and threat that has become the core of the protagonist's life.  Reichardt's movie is ultra-realistic in its details and aggressively undramatic:  the Marine Corps bomb expert and the rich girl who is bankrolling the project, and who seems to be Josh's closest friend, apparently have sex.  (Movie reviews and plot descriptions describe them as having "a sexual relationship" -- but this overstates the liaison; there is no "relationship").  We know about the encounter by some moans and sighs half-heard on the soundtrack -- nothing more is depicted and the two characters give no sign that they have ever touched one another let alone had sex.  This is typical of way Reichardt constructs her movie.  Like Meeks Cutoff, the film invokes Samuel Beckett -- it's principal theme seems to be the futility of any kind of action.  And this is also characteristic of the movie:  Reichardt is good with landscapes and goofy random encounters; she doesn't like to stage violence -- a scene involving a murder is shot in a sauna so that the director doesn't really have to show you anything.  (Similarly, the explosion and destruction of the dam is just a loud boom off-screen -- Reichardt's ethic seems to be that to present showy images of violence and destruction is to defeat the moral and ethical purpose of a film like this, a cool dramatization that crime doesn't pay.)  In structure, the movie resembles many heist pictures -- films like The Asphalt Jungle or Kubrick's The Killingsome criminals conspire to commit a crime, successfully engineer the heist, and, then, destroy one another.  Night Moves is produced by horror film director Larry Fessenden and Todd Haynes,  the director of another alarming movie with horror film atmosphere, Safe with Julianne Moore.  As Hitchcock was fond of saying, show the audience a bomb with a timer, set the timer ticking, and you have suspense whether you like it or not.  Night Moves is extremely compelling and tremendously suspenseful -- one has the sense that Reichardt was, perhaps, hoping for something more profound, but her almost silent characters and their enigmatic actions can't support much in the way of meaning.  Nonetheless, this is an excellent crime picture.  (The lead characters, Josh played by Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning playing Dena, and Peter Sarsgaard, as ex-marine, are excellent.  In one scene, Josh stops to yank a doe that has been hit by a passing vehicle off the highway.  The doe is pregnant and Josh says that the animal has a baby deer inside of it that is still alive -- this is metaphoric for the characters, who seem doomed before they have really been properly born.)

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