The central contradiction of Kelly Reichardt’s “Meek’s Cutoff” is that it resonates not despite but because it withholds and denies so much. Its conceit is the reduction of narrative to three basic questions — namely, 1) does Meek know where they’re going?, 2) is the Cayuse leading them to water or into a trap?, and 3) will the settlers survive their journey?—and its gambit is the refusal to answer any of them. This is an audacious strategy: it asks patience of an audience and then deliberately refuses to reward it with the pleasure of resolution. In lieu of the simple gratification of narrative closure, Reichardt strives to glean deeper truths about human experience, an aspiration which doubtless justifies the frustration of conventional expectations.
“Night Moves”, Reichardt’s follow up feature about a trio of young eco-terrorists, spends roughly its first hour suggesting an interest in the opposite approach. “Meek’s Cutoff” was a Western, which is to say perhaps the most instantly recognizable and rigidly codified American genre, and yet it derived much of its strangeness from how thoroughly it defamiliarized the tradition, taking the iconography of the West and boiling it down to its barest trace elements. “Night Moves”, by contrast, finds itself ensconced firmly within the strictures of the classical heist picture, going through the motions of the thriller without any apparent desire to disrupt the genre’s expected pleasures and rhythms.
The story seems oddly straightforward, and if important narrative information is elided at all it is only to momentarily amplify the intrigue: we begin by following Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), an ambitious leftist spurned to action by a burgeoning anarchic sensibility, as he conspires to sabotage an environmentally taxing dam with the help of an impressionable and conveniently wealthy girlfriend, Dena (Dakota Fanning), and a squirrely hired hand named Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard).
These early sequences, in which the process of grassroots terrorism is examined at a granular level, have a focus and patience whose rigor proves in and of itself deeply appealing. Reichardt seems to be working here within the realm of Steven Soderbergh or David Fincher, seizing upon a specific, hyper-contemporary milieu and pouring over it almost anthropologically. The absence of context or explicated motivation here—it is a while before Josh even refers in passing to the reason he wants to destroy this particular dam, and even then his conviction in its importance is never questioned—only serves to further emphasize the action on a strictly mechanical level, which makes “Night Moves” seem for a spell like a stripped-down thriller par excellence. The operation itself requires the group to load up on nitrogen-based fertilizer, develop it into an explosive compound, and park several dozen sacks worth of the material in a boat at the dam’s outer edge, and each stage of the process has its attendant complications—complications in which Reichardt locates rather striking crescendos of generic tension.
The most effective of these sequences finds Dena negotiating the purchase of fertilizer in red flag-raising quantities from a local hardware store, where the management eyes her with such suspicion you would think it’s a prospective arms trade. Reichardt proves a natural at imbuing even the most benign interactions with dread, a feeling the film sustains from beginning to end—even long after the dam finally falls. That cataclysm, by the way, occurs about halfway into the film, at which point “Night Moves” pivots from by-the-book procedural toward something more self-consciously strange. Having completed his mission, Josh returns home to the farmland commune where he contributes a sustainable-living farm, and within moments Reichardt pulls the rug out from under his (and our) faith in his nobility: Sean (Kai Lennox), an older and apparently wiser member of the far-left community, overhears news of the dam bombing and summarily dismisses it as a facile bit of “theater” from someone too impatient to change the world in ways that matter.
This one moment functions as a kind instant sympathy reversal, recasting everything we’ve seen through the film’s first half as an expression of youthful folly and misguided political conviction. What has until this point been a film about hardcore left-wing activists now seems more like a bit of harsh invective against precisely such people, bringing the thoughtless but well-meaning actions of people like Josh to task for essentially missing the point. From here the film shifts into a more quietly observational register: we follow Josh as he deals with the fallout of his actions, reflecting on a death caused by the explosion and struggling to deal with the increasing alarm of Dena, whose guilt rapidly begins to get the better of her. Over the course of its second half, “Night Moves” spins its wheels by design, gladly lingering over the consequences, both moral and legal, of an event whose long-term significance clearly hadn’t been thought through.
But while it’s interesting to see a film raise its most important questions and work through its most important themes only in the home stretch, the sense that half the feature has been set up for what is more or less a narrative punchline feels somewhat disingenuous. The aftermath in this case serves to prove too clean a point about the action which precedes it, a trick that simultaneously invalidates the film’s baser genre pleasures while making its intellectual ambitions seem too schematic. It hardly constitutes a spoiler to reveal that “Night Moves” ends a note of pointed ambiguity—given the strain of its inorganic construction, it’s hard to imagine it wrapping up any other way.
SCORE: 5.8 / 10