A lot can happen when a filmmaker manages to look past the constrictions placed upon the genres that we all try to categorize motion pictures by. It becomes less about trying to make you laugh, cry, or scream, and more about a group of characters and the picture's depiction of human nature. Writer/director Kelly Reichardt has pursued this exactly. While her newest film Night Moves could be classified as a drama and a thriller, she avoids the typical beats of such genres. This is much more a character study than anything else, and it's a highly respectable move on her part. Few filmmakers are brave enough to venture into such territory, where every decision has a consequence for our leads, and we're simply in for their emotional ride.
Night Moves follows Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), who is an introverted individual who works on an organic farm. He collaborates a master plan to make society understand what we're doing to our planet with fellow passionate environmentalists Dena (Dakota Fanning) and Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard). They're looking to make a statement by blowing up a hydroelectric dam, and making the first step in a movement that others may follow. Little does the trio know, a lot can go horribly wrong, changing their lives forever.
Rather than simply placing audiences in the middle of such an intense situation, Reichardt and co-writer Jonathan Raymond take their sweet time in order to introduce each of the characters. Josh is clearly the lead here, but Dena certainly has a lot of influence throughout the picture. Harmon's impact primarily comes from off of the screen. While we understand that they feel passionately about the environment, it ultimately becomes a slow-burn story about the human condition. Reichardt introduces us to a few characters and then fills them with doubt and paranoia. The trio starts getting all of the necessary materials to make this a successful heist. With each item that they obtain, they face different challenges that they must overcome. This may be a slow build-up, but we're left with the hope that it will ultimately pay off later in the motion picture. There is quite a bit of foreshadowing through the first act that hints at the incredible amount of paranoia that is to be experienced by our leads. Can they even trust each other? What happens after it's all over? There are many of these questions that are sure to haunt viewers and leave them sitting at the edge of their seats.
The film never truly kicks into high gear, which can be seen as being both a positive and a negative. While Night Moves always has your attention, there is never any grand pay-off, so don't anticipate it too much. The story continues to build upon itself, although an all-too-real reality hits our characters that feels as if you have just experienced a horrible nightmare with these characters. This would be the positive way of looking at it. Many scenes have a certain dream-like quality to them. The question that ultimately sits with us is, what will be left of them after this heist? Whether they will be able to go their separate ways and remain emotionally stable is one of the strongest elements here that keeps us invested. We investigate their households and workplaces once again, and their paranoia and guilt ultimately affects our perspective of the environment and those who live within it. This is a truly impressive aspect to Night Moves that has its moments of tension that will have you deeply caring for the well-being of our leads.
Night Moves holds our attention and even creates nail-biting suspense, at times. However, this changes at the beginning of the third act. It feels as if the filmmakers have lost their way and weren't sure where to take it next. Reichardt could have taken the film in several intriguing directions. However, it feels all too anti-climatic. You'll feel as if you got to know these characters for nothing, as they begin to act out in ways that steer the entire film off of its very own subtle tracks. Night Moves maintains our attention throughout, but it ultimately drops the ball during its third act. It continues the theme of human nature when paralyzed with paranoia and doubt, but the ending just feels like such a letdown after experiencing such a tension-filled journey with Josh and Dena in the spotlight.
If nothing else, writer/director Kelly Reichardt brought the right actors to portray these characters. Jesse Eisenberg successfully bring Josh to life on the silver screen. Keep in mind that this is a role that we've seen him play numerous times. He's becoming typecast as the reclusive, yet intelligent character. He always does a good job, but it would be nice to see him mix it up a bit. Dakota Fanning is surprisingly the star here as Dena. She is left to get some of the supplies for the heist, allowing her to deliver some quick lines of well-written dialogue with ease. During the more emotional moments, she portrays a wonderful range in this role. Peter Sarsgaard is fitting as Harmon. He might not receive quite as much screen time as Eisenberg and Fanning, but he most certainly brings this overly-confident character to life. The cast ultimately aids in delivering the most intense scenes that this feature has to offer.
The film has slow-burn pacing, although writer/director Kelly Reichardt truly uses this element to her advantage. She creates skin-crawling tension with the use of her troubled characters and several minimalistic attention-grabbing sequences. Dakota Fanning is excellent, as we follow a plan that incites paranoia, fear, and suspense in both the characters and the audience. You might feel the need to identify this as a drama, thriller, or perhaps even a heist film. However, Reichardt narrows her focus on the human condition when placed under such conditions, which makes for a truly interesting watch, even despite its disappointing third act. Night Moves will make you think differently about the rules of the genres. Recommended.