“Night Moves” could be described as a thriller about ecoterrorism, but that wouldn’t begin to convey its special qualities, its mysteriousness. Kelly Reichardt, who also coscripted the film with her regular writing partner Jon Raymond, makes movies (such as “Wendy and Lucy”) that are almost preternaturally attuned to the minutest atmospherics of drama. At a time when most filmmakers are concerned with how supercharged they can film things, she can capture the sheer grain of time’s passage in a way that is practically Zen-like.
At least on the surface, “Night Moves” is fairly straightforward. But there is nothing conventional about how Reichardt plays out her scenario. Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) lives and works at a sustainable agricultural cooperative in southern Oregon. Profoundly disturbed by what he sees as the corporate desecration of the environment, he plans to blow up a nearby hydroelectric dam aided by Dena (Dakota Fanning), a college dropout who is bankrolling the operation, and Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), an ex-marine with an expertise in explosives.
Their preparation for the night raid has a single-minded meticulousness, a sense of mission, that is also deeply deluded. For all their planning, they seem unaware of just how much can go wrong. They want to preserve nature, but it is nature – along with their own hubris – that conspires against them. For its first half, up through the bombing, “Night Moves” has the steady-state tension of a good melodrama even as it goes way beyond that. The bombing itself, carried out in a hushed, nocturnal landscape that is both ominous and deeply beautiful, is a real nail-biter. Predictably, Reichardt doesn’t actually show us the explosion; we hear instead a muffled boom in the background, as the three conspirators roll away from the scene of the crime.
The film’s second half, while it doesn’t pay off in the same way as what led up to it and has some dramatically unconvincing consequences, is also its most original aspect. In the wake of the operation, the three conspirators separate and agree to break off communication with each other. But when a camper who was sleeping downstream from the dam is reported missing in the aftermath of the explosion, the full and terrible momentousness of their action is realized. Dena, who works in a secluded spa, becomes unwound, developing a rash on her face that is like a visual emblem of her guilt and fear. Josh feels for her, but he also recognizes that she is the weak link in the chain. Harmon, who is both the scariest and the sharpest of the trio, thinks Dena must be silenced. Of the three, he possesses the least conscience. He is only troubled by the prospect of getting caught.
Reichardt gets inside the psychology of these people, especially Josh, whose presence dominates the movie after the halfway point. Eisenberg is known for playing hyperkinetic fast-talking types, characters whose inner lives, such as they are, are all on the surface. In “Night Moves” he is required to play out much of the movie in a state of wary repose. Pensive, spooked, Josh comes apart before our eyes, but in slow motion. Eisenberg’s performance has a creepy inwardness compared with Fanning’s, which becomes (appropriately) fraught and bristly, or with Sarsgaard’s coolly fine work, with its gradations of menace.
Reichardt doesn’t condone what these conspirators have done. I would guess that she shares their ecological concerns. But this is a movie about how idealism can go horribly wrong. One of Josh’s co-workers, when he first hears about the dam explosion, is dismissive of this “act of theater.” He sees it as a “statement,” and thus all but useless. “Night Moves” may have a soft, almost dreamy feel, but at the core it’s crucially hard-headed. In its own quiet way, in how it pulls together our utopian ideals and home-grown fears, it’s the zeitgeist movie of the moment. Grade: A- (Rated R for some language and nudity.)