Notable Festivals: Venice, Deauville (Grand Prix)
The state of Oregon boasts a long and proud history of eco-activism, be it as simple as routine composting and recycling at the individual level or as sweeping as governmental efforts aimed at preserving our natural resources. The beauty of nature knows no politics; our lush forests and bubbling streams of fresh mountain water inspire conservative and liberal alike to maintain the sanctity of our environment. Of course, any movement or cause is going to have its fringe fanatics— extremists who refuse to recognize nuance (and sometimes even reason) into the conversation, committing themselves to the politicization of issues that we all should theoretically be able to agree on. In this time of runaway climate crisis, they might argue, the cost of inaction is too high to ignore. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
This sentiment has given rise to a movement of renegade eco-activists; fringe militants who actively desire (and attempt) to sabotage our energy infrastructure in the name of a cleaner planet. Their mission, however, is something of a paradox— to be a responsible steward of nature is to care for all the living things supported by it. Blowing up a dam to restore natural water flows isn’t necessarily evil, per se, but it does cause a criminal amount of damage and could put the local population in danger. It also doesn’t make a good look for other environmentalists trying to enact change through legitimate means. Nevertheless, the psychology behind such a character that can claim absolute righteousness within such a slim grey area of morality makes for compelling drama. It is precisely this scenario that director Kelly Reichardt explores in her fifth major feature, NIGHT MOVES (2013). Written by her scripting partner Jonathan Raymond, the film is structured as a simmering thriller about unintended consequences and the emotional fallout from a deed you can’t undo. In many ways, NIGHT MOVES represents the most “conventional” film of Reichardt’s career, diving further headlong into subversive genre storytelling after the success of her anti-western MEEK’S CUTOFF in 2010. The end result, funnily enough, loses some of the resonance of Reichardt’s particular artistry in its reach towards a more-commercial profile.
That said, NIGHT MOVES nevertheless finds Reichardt spin an idiosyncratic and effective yarn about the compounding effects of guilt and desperation. Set in the southern part of Oregon around the town of Ashland, the story concerns Jesse Eisenberg’s Josh: a quiet, pensive and slightly-schlubby eco-activist who is about as far off the grid as one can get in the modern era. He lives in a little yurt on an agricultural commune, along with a group of other like-minded people that includes Alia Shawkat and Katherine Waterston in very minor roles. Whereas his fellow commune dwellers have more harmonious dreams for a sustainable lifestyle, Josh harbors grander —if not more destructive — ambitions. He links up with an ex-Marine named Harmon, played by Peter Sarsgaard with a deceptiveness masked by his laidback charisma. Harmon shares Josh’s dream for radical action, and has the know-how to build a bomb with available materials; he just needs Josh’s help in procuring the raw materials for an explosive and a boat to use as the delivery device. With the help of Dakota Fanning’s Dena — an emotionally fragile young woman who compensates with a wry sense of humor — Josh purchases a small boat from a clueless rich suburbanite and begins converting it to a floating bomb. The mission is successful enough; the trio are able to blow up a dam under cover of night and evade the police. For all their best laid plans, however, they fail to account for the human factor. The explosion causes a flood, which is their expected result, but it also claims the life of an innocent person camped downstream. The merry little band of eco-terrorists instantly fractures when the news breaks, causing a crisis of grief and guilt that slowly builds to an unexpected conclusion that asks a complicated question: how far would you go to save the earth, and how much farther would you go to cover it up?
On a technical/craft level, NIGHT MOVES asserts itself as a transitional work in Reichardt’s career. Creative continuity is retained through her recurring partnership with executive producers Todd Haynes & Larry Fessenden and producers Neil Kopp & Anish Savjani. A handful of additional producers — Saemi Kim, Chris Maybach, and Rodrigo Teixiera — quietly complement Kopp and Savjani’s work, fashioning NIGHT MOVES as a comparatively slick (but not over-produced) film within Reichardt’s otherwise rough-hewn filmography. NIGHT MOVES’ big aesthetic departure lies within its digital cinematography, marking the first time that Reichardt has worked with the format. The film was shot in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio on an Arri Alexa camera, but she and returning cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt manage to avoid the sterile flatness that tends to plague digitally-acquired films. The look of NIGHT MOVES is decidedly earthy, employing what appears to be a post-added film grain effect to create a soft, pleasing image that approaches the organic warmth of celluloid. Reichardt and Blauvelt harness the diffuse, soggy light of the Oregon cloud layer to capture a naturalistic and autumnal color palette. A combination of locked-off static compositions and deliberate dolly movements create an observational, minimalistic tone on par with Reichardt’s previous work. Reichardt once again performs her own editing duties, creating a simmering slow burn that’s reinforced by returning composer Jeff Grace’s brooding score, which mixes ambient electronic textures with guitar and piano to evoke the haunting rural environment and Josh’s inner grappling with his moral decay.
For all its affectations of “commerciality” or mainstream appeal, NIGHT MOVES nevertheless doggedly refuses to abandon Reichardt’s artistic principles. Her thematic fascinations continue to inform the perspective of her storytelling, with NIGHT MOVES serving as an opportunity to convey her worldview to a much wider audience. In a filmography populated by people existing along the margins of society, NIGHT MOVES presents a particularly interesting subculture— those who actively choose to detach themselves from the modern world’s infrastructural grid. Josh, his fellow conspirators, and his friends at the agricultural commune have chosen to sacrifice a life of creature comforts and convenience in the name of environmental purity and sustainability. It’s an extreme view, admittedly, but it’s also one that’s surprisingly common throughout Oregon and the greater Pacific Northwest region. As admirable as it is to lead a sustainable life and reduce your carbon footprint as much as possible, it’s also impossible to adhere to with 100% success without some degree of delusion. Just because Josh and the commune live outside of industrial society doesn’t mean they have escaped it entirely— they still rely on industry for essentials like clothing and, I’m assuming, water & power. This means they must participate in the mainstream economy, which means they need money, which means, at the very least, they must sell their harvest at local farmer’s markets. To do this, they must transport these goods to and from the farm via gasoline-guzzling pickup trucks. They are caught in a feedback loop whereby their efforts to combat pollution must actively contribute to it. They have to turn to ever more-drastic measures if they wish to break the loop, embracing ideas and principles that align closer to violent extremism than the harmonious pacifism they pay lip service to.
The film’s message, then, is quite clear: the individual cannot simply live by a righteous environmental purity in this day & age. The industrial revolution has created a force that’s too powerful and too pervasive; total abstention is impossible. Reichardt hammers home this sentiment with the film’s ambiguous, open-ended conclusion, whereby Josh attempts to evade suspicion by dropping right back into the grid he despises. Forced from the commune that had been his social and economic cocoon, and with nowhere else to turn, Josh applies for a retail job at a local outdoor supply chain. The final shot speaks to Reichardt’s minimalist sensibilities, using a static closeup of a relatively mundane image — a ceiling mirror reflecting a woman texting on her cell phone — to convey his ultimate imprisonment within the consumer-surveillance state; he may or may not get away with his horrible acts, but he’ll always be looking over his shoulder. He’s learned that the myth of the valiant ecological crusader is simply that— a myth. The reality is far more sobering & uncertain, leaving him further marginalized as he compromises his principles in exchange for his freedom.
NIGHT MOVES premiered to a warm reception at the Venice Film Festival, and even took home the Grand Prix award at France’s Deauville Film Festival— an increasingly-vital event for doggedly independent international cinema. Reichardt’s play at larger, more-conventional audiences stateside wasn’t quite as successful as its festival campaign, failing to crack $300k at the domestic box office despite positive critical notices. This is not to say that NIGHT MOVES is a failure, however— its distinct appeal as a crossover work more than justifies its existence, and the budget was likely low enough that any losses were comparatively minimal. More importantly, the film stands (for the time being) as the last panel in Reichardt’s complex cinematic portrait of Oregon and the sympathetic freaks and fringe folk who call it home. One of the very few filmmakers to understand that the state is much more geographically diverse and historically-complicated than the heavily-white, progressively-minded hipster utopia of its largest city, Reichardt has managed to weave a comprehensive, deeply-humanist tetralogy of stories that are uniquely and singularly Oregonian. Having traveled to the Rose City to visit Todd Haynes during the tail end of a major creative slump in the early 2000’s, she found the fertile Willamette Valley to be a promised land of artistic reinvigoration and limitless potential— utterly free from the industrial constraints or intimidating business expectations of distant epicenters like LA or New York. Her subsequent immersion in its creative community established her as a pioneer of contemporary American independent cinema, and a key voice in charting the course towards new frontiers.
NIGHT MOVES is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Cinedigm.
Written by: Kelly Reichardt, Jonathan Raymond
Produced by: Saemi Kim, Neil Kopp, Chris Maybach, Anish Savjani, Rodrigo Teixera
Director of Photography: Christopher Blauvelt
Production Designer: Elliot Hostetter
Edited by: Kelly Reichardt
Music by: Jeff Grace