Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves occupies the head space of its main characters to a suffocating degree. But there is one particular scene in the film, before the proverbial bang, that encapsulates a broader and more concerning cultural phenomenon: that of social indifference. The shot comes from inside a forest preserve cabin. The lush greenery and passing camping troops are seen through the cabin’s window. Reichardt maintains the stationary shot, with a television occupying the top center portion of the screen, directly above the window. “The Price is Right” is the program of choice - the bright colors and heightened gestures bullying your eyes away from the dense forestry. A truck hauling a boat passes by. It arouses not the slightest acknowledgement from the cabin dwellers, who are deeply involved at the sight of a contestant spinning the show’s big wheel. The boat and the three passengers inside the pick-up truck exist parallel to the site’s campers: their intentions based on misguided fundamentalist teachings.
That shot is one of the rare occasions that Reichardt looks to, rather than looking through, her characters. Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) is the cerebral one, Dena (Dakota Fanning) backs the triad fiscally, and Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) is the wild card. Collectively, they are eco-terrorists looking to blow up a dam in Oregon. Their goal? If people can’t be coursed to use fewer resources, then they must be forced to do so. Reichardt makes deliberate efforts to keep the ideology her characters within itself - there are very few characters in the film that interact with the group. The few that do offer a remarkably rich context to Reichardt’s striking compositions.
For example, there’s the man who sells the boat to Dena and Josh. There are only fleeting shots of the man. Yet the critical moment of interaction comes from when Josh enters the man’s home. Josh is seen seething at the man’s opulent living, from his massive lawn to the extravagant living room. It’s this lavish and commercial lifestyle that Josh is rejecting. Another example of Reichardt’s complex subtext comes in the form of a fertilizer seller. With the group requiring more fertilizer to be used for their bomb, Dena is tasked with retrieving an ample order. The seller requires a social security card for such a large purchase. The strategy that Dena employs is a simple one: she highlights the size of the order and the subsequent profit of such a purchase. But to her surprise, the man doesn’t budge. She anticipates greed from the salesman but is met with a fundamentally virtuous man looking to uphold the rules of his profession.
Night Moves is Reichardt’s most accomplished visual study. In a film that so subtly explores the contradictions of an ecological movement through narrative, Reichardt is diligent about approaching it on a visual level as well. The film is loaded with sequences of commerce interfering with nature, from the aforementioned cabin sequence to a final mirror shot that yields the most cynical ending to a film in recent memory. Cumulatively, all of Reichardt’s compositions build upon the history of the previous shot. Night Moves, unlike the her previous Meek’s Cutoff, unfolds as if in constant motion and propelled by multifaceted social, economic, and political forces.
What becomes clear as the picture unfolds is that Reichardt does not advocate nor condemn the actions of her characters. Arguably, the film relents to a more traditional narrative - one of the criminal contending with the consequences of their actions. But even as the film explores that arc in its final act, it’s not done in the typical fashion that one would expect. It’s handled with a type of brutal honesty yet never does it allow external ideologies to shape the content that it cultivated throughout the picture. With Night Moves, Reichardt cements herself as one of the staunchest and gripping filmmakers working today.