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Dull characters and directorial fumbles mar Kelly Reichardt's Night Moves

Night Moves centres on an act of ecological terrorism — the destruction of a dam in the middle of the night, at the hands of radical environmentalists Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), Dena (Dakota Fanning) and Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard). The execution of the act itself is relatively standard — the first half of the film plays like a slow-burning heist film. The act is complete around the midpoint, and the focus shifts from execution to consequence, becoming more interested in the consciences and priorities of the main characters, and the lengths to which they will go to ensure their own survival. It’s relatively interesting stuff, if a bit dull. The real hook here is the political slant. These are not slick criminals, they’re environmentalists; it’s not a heist movie, it’s an activist movie. And for all the intellectual weight this small but significant difference may add, it also imbues it with a major flaw — for all its social importance, Night Moves is insufferable.

The activists in Night Moves fight for a good cause, but they’re so unbearable it’s hard not to root for the bad guys — you know, the unseen villains killing the environment. It’s not the subject matter that’s at fault here, but the people arguing for it. Eisenberg’s Josh is fodder for the multitude of haters the actor has (unfairly) earned since coming to prominence. He lives in that trademark frown he perfected in The Social Network, swapping the laptop for a pick up truck and ditching any of the depth. It’s hard to tell if this is horrible or perfect casting, and Dakota Fanning’s Dena doesn’t fare much better. Sarsgaard’s Harmon is the exception — as an awful, self-absorbed ex-military activist who may just be in it for the thrill, he is both complex and entertaining. Unfortunately he is only on-screen for a handful of scenes and disappears after that Hitchcockian narrative shift. Just shifting the focus to Sarsgaard instead of Eisenberg’s cardboard cut-out would have given this film a much needed shot in the arm.

The characters aren’t Night Moves’ only problem. Questionable directorial choices are made throughout — best exemplified by Reichardt’s decision to leave one of the film’s big payoffs off-screen. Whether stylistic or budgetary, this decision to neuter the film of one of its few thrills is emblematic of the entire production, in which perceived depth takes precedence over quality filmmaking. For all this dreariness, Night Moves is not without its moments, and the first half of the film is a clinical but watchable affair — an early tracking shot on a bicycle and much of the preparation for the act are quite thrilling, before the characters get in the way. It is only in the second half, in which Reichardt attempts to do more and succeeds far less, and Eisenberg and Fanning battle to drain more life from the film than the other, that the film falls beyond redemption. Night Moves aims to deliver a message — if only there were more to the delivery.

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