This review originally appeared on Pinnland Empire. Check out Pinnland Empire for more great essays from Marcus Pinn.
“One person, that’s all it takes…”
Because nature flows throughout almost all of Kelly Reichardt’s films in an organic way (Old Joy, Wendy & Lucy & Meek’s Cutoff) and a lot of her characters seem rather earth-conscious (specifically the characters in Old Joy), I thought Night Moves would be quietly “pro-eco-terrorist”, but that’s not the case here. This story was certainly birthed from someone who does loves the earth more than the average human being, but the film really shows the ugly side of extreme environmental activism/eco-terrorism (it should be noted that Reichardt makes numerous attempts to show alternative ways to be a radical environmentalist rather than take to a form of terrorism like our main characters do in Night Moves). It was the label; “eco-terrorism” or ”eco-terrorist” that really bugged me. I’ve never been a fan of the term; “eco-terrorist” (a term that’s been used a lot in most reviews for this film since it premiered at Toronto last year). If you use violence, specifically explosives (like our main characters in this film do) in an effort to get your points or beliefs across – you’re a terrorist. I know I may sound like some conservative jerk, but that’s just how I feel. Obviously eco-terrorists aren’t in the same tier/lane as Al-Qaeda or Jim crow-era white supremacists, but they’re still terrorists by my definition. There’s no need to hyphenate a term in an effort to soften the negativity behind it.
But it was my fault for putting a lil’ too much weight on other critics’ reviews and making pre-conceived notions before actually seeing the film myself. Kelly Reichardt didn’t soften anything or try to make her characters out to be heroes in Night Moves…
If you’re familiar with the content on Pinnland Empire then you know it is sometimes difficult for me to separate my personal experiences from some films, and this is another one of those write-ups. Although Night Moves takes place in Portland, a place I’ve never been to and know nothing about, I feel like I know some of the characters in this film. I grew up in the old hippy town of Amherst, Massachusetts where I’m sure a few hardcore environmentalists were brewing while studying _______ at Hampshire College. Growing up, I was used to the tie-dye & sandals earth-conscious folk who handcuffed themselves to trees so they wouldn’t be cut down. Those types of environmentalists aren’t a myth. They exist. Some of ‘em were my counselors at summer camp when I was a kid. The crying, unintimidating hippie handcuffed to a tree is the general stereotype that average movie-goers have about environmentalists when it comes to their portrayal on film. Some people have no clue of the more serious “eco-terrorism” that has been around for decades. I say this because I almost never hear people in my circle talking about it, and I rarely see the news covering it. In fact, Night Moves seems to draw a lot of inspiration from Edward Abbey’s The Monkey wrench Gang (a book from the mid-70’s about a group of radical environmentalists who use the same violent tactics as our characters in Night Moves). This is another recent film, along with the earth liberation front documentary; If A Tree Falls, that dispells the cinematic myth/portrayal of environmental activists.
Night Moves is the story of “Josh” (Jesse Eisenberg) & “Dena” (Dakota Fanning) – two passionate environmentalists that are fed up with just talking about saving the planet. With the help of a like-minded ex-marine; “Harmon” (Peter Sarsgaard), they set out to blow up a local hydroelectric dam (one dam in a series of dams) that they feel is a harmful entity. Of course things don’t all go according to plan and a huge rift grows between our three main characters and the story takes a dark turn in the second half…
In Josh & Dena’s defense, hydroelectric dams are pretty disruptive to the earth. But where does it stop? First a hydroelectric dam (which is a pretty ambitious start), and the next thing you know, environmentalists/eco-terrorists are bombing anything they feel is harmful to the earth when they don’t get their way. I understand that a lot of people are doing some serious damage to the planet but who decides that we should start blowing shit up to send a message? Like Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock, you could say I have the same basic beliefs as an environmentalist/eco-terrorists (probably due to my “green” Amherst, Mass upbringing) but I don’t really want to be associated with them and I definitely wouldn’t go to the lengths that some of them do. I get genuinely ticked off when I see someone blatantly littering (sometimes I’ll even say something or at least scowl); I appreciate people choosing bicycles over cars more these days; I really don’t understand the point of making/wearing a fur coat; I feel there’s very few things that are as unforgivable as animal abuse; and with so much food offered in grocery stores, I don’t see the need to hunt for sport, especially with machine guns (I’m sure I pissed someone off with that statement). But at the same time, I’m very much a carnivore, I wear a leather belt, I’d much rather drive somewhere than take a bike (that’s just me being lazy) and I think that splashing red paint on someone to make a statement (like some environmentalists have in fact done in the past) is absolutely stupid.
Speaking of stupid, I don’t know how much Josh & Dena actually thought out their plan – setting off a massive explosion would not only destroy more land (in addition to the land already disrupted by the dam) but I’m pretty sure a lot of innocent animals & humans would be killed or at least put in danger. Didn’t they think that was a lil’ hypocritical to their cause? But this isn’t the first example of blaring hypocrisy to come out of this kind of activism – for those that don’t know, former PeTA vice president; Marybeth Sweetland is an insulin-dependent diabetic, yet was the VP of an organization that terrorized medical facilities that tested insulin (…you know – the medicine she uses to stay alive) on animals. This is the kind of bullshit that brings out my cynicism and makes me not care about certain causes.
But I feel that’s part of what this movie brings up. Perhaps Josh & Dena were young & irrational with unchecked anger and didn’t really know what they were doing from the get-go. At no point in Night Moves do we get an actual antagonist/villain who acts as the human “face” for this harmful dam (this is a good thing). It’s like Josh, Dena & Harmon are fighting a giant faceless “thing” that’s way bigger than them and they don’t see that or see how pointless their mission is. It won’t really make any kind of a dent in the grand scheme of things. It’s almost like Wendy’s somewhat hopeless plan in Wendy & Lucy (Reichardt’s 2008 film) to move to Alaska to try and find work. The intentions in both films are noble but ultimately hopeless (in my opinion).
Personally, I don’t have any real sympathy for the characters in Night Moves but I know for a fact that others do. At the Q&A after the screening I was at, with Kelly Reichardt in attendance, the person leading the Q&A asked the audience members to raise their hands if they felt some kind of sympathy or understanding for what Josh, Dena & Harmon did, and surprisingly quite a few people raised their hands.
I don’t know how I feel about that…
Much like how Kelly Reichardt challenged the western genre with her last film (Meek’s Cutoff), Night Moves challenges the thriller genre. She showed realistic tension & action instead bullshit sensationalism. We see more about the planning & perperation of the bombing than the actual explosion itself.
The subject matter in Night Moves is pretty different from everything else Reichardt has done but it still doesn’t stick out that much from the rest of her filmography. Night Moves definitely takes place in the same cinematic world as Old Joy & Wendy & Lucy (it should be noted that both of those films are connected by the same dog “Lucy”). I definitely see a character like Kurt (Old Joy) or Wendy (Wendy & Lucy) crossing paths with people like Josh & Dena.
But that’s not to say Kelly Reichardt didn’t stretch as a filmmaker or step outside of the comfort zone that I, and others, sometimes put her in. Besides things like explosions & violent deaths, she really utilizes her score unlike any of her other movies and the cinematography just adds an extra layer of tension & creepiness.
This is definitely Reichardt’s darkest film (there’s technically a “body count”) and she draws some influence from her debut; River Of Grass. Both films are minimalist stories (with minimal dialogue) that deal with “couples” who take to violence by the end of the film. The difference between the two is that the main characters in River Of Grass are motivated by boredom whereas the characters in Night Moves are motivated by what they feel is an important cause.
There’s also strands of Meek (Meek’s Cutoff)’s DNA in the Harmon character as they’re both the defacto leaders in each movie yet they are both, as Reichardt put it at the Q&A, “full of shit”.I’m going to need some time to mull this film over (I’ll probably see it again), but I definitely recommend you all check this out. It’s just as contemplative & frustrating (in a good way) as it is rewarding. If you’re able to see Night Moves, please check it out then tune in to my next appearance on the Syndromes And A Cinema podcast where we’ll be discussing Reichardt’s filmography.