Night Moves

| September 3, 2014

The late director Robert Altman had a notorious aversion to story.  He believed story and plot were a distraction to the study of simple human behavior.  Kelly Reichardt approaches her films much the same way, focusing less on story – or even character – and more on how certain types of people behave in a given situation.  We don’t learn much about her characters; we just observe their actions.  Reichardt’s Night Moves takes this to the extreme by implementing it in a genre where plot usually takes precedence: the political thriller.

The opening moments of Night Moves veer dangerously close to comedy.  In a movie about environmental terrorists plotting to blow up a hydroelectric dam, casting Jesse Eisenberg and Dakota Fanning seems to go against type.  Eisenberg brings his screen persona as he does with all his movies; he is not cast to embody a character, but because his personality just naturally fits the role (he’s particularly good as a Woody Allen stand-in).  In Night Moves, Eisenberg brings a nervous energy to a naturally paranoid radical.  He is so heavily restrained, however, that it takes a moment to get used to, even though his “Columbus” persona breaks out on occasion.

As a general rule, filmmakers should never make a radical the protagonist.  They’re shallow and predictable, and it’s really only possible for them to be acted upon which can limit the action.  But Reichardt is dealing in types: the ex-Marine, the spoiled rich girl, the twitchy leader with a soft spot for animals.  They’re all thrown together with a sparse structure made up primarily of clichés.  There’s the gathering of supplies, the civilian who could blow their cover, the drawn out will-they-won’t-they tension during the setting of the explosives.  There’s even the tortured soul who just may confess after the fact (no surprise that it’s Dakota Fanning) and the hushed conversations between the male compatriots regarding what should be done.  It’s all so average, or at least it would be if this were an average thriller.  What could have been a humdrum affair is a little more exciting because all that matters is how they each behave.

Much like Altman, Kelly Reichardt has a great eye for camera movement.  Night Moves has been described as “Hitchcockian,” a term much like “pure cinema” that has just about lost its meaning.  Night Moves is neither, and it’s refreshing to watch suspense play out through how characters act and react, how they behave around each other and in specific situations, regardless of how one-note they may be.  A director doesn’t have to reinvent or subvert genre expectations, nor does he or she need to get to the heart and soul of their characters.  Sometimes just the shell is more than enough.

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