One of the most powerful scenes in Night Moves is Jesse Eisenberg wandering off and then looking down at his hands. Mechanically, that’s the only thing that happens in the scene. But in terms of the story’s shift at that point, in terms of what it expresses about the character, in terms of what will happen afterwards, it’s a powerful moment. These hands. What can they do? What will they do?
There’s a quiet intensity here that wouldn’t be out of place in some of the best “nothing happens” movies of the 70s, an expressiveness without expression, a calmly contained rage. Eisenberg, in the performance of his career, is a quietly writhing tangle of conviction and frustration. Night Moves is about the divide between belief and action, and while the characters are environmentalists, it’s ultimately more universal than that. What do you do when you believe something so strongly that it entirely defines you, yet you cannot find a way to manifest it? Where do your hands and heart belong? Where do they fit?
Contrast Night Moves to The East, a recent movie about eco-terrorists. The East was a clumsy Hollywood style production, with attractive young actors dressing down to pretend to be unwashed salt-of-the-earth grunge activists. Alexander Skarsgard and Brit Marling were far too gorgeous to be convincing. Night Moves director Kelly Reichardt wouldn’t tolerate that sort of play acting. Dakota Fanning is convincingly plain and even a little frumpy. Eisenberg’s sullen intensity is a foil to Peter Sarsgaard’s disaffected devil-may-care. They each relate in different ways to each other, to their basic convictions, to the heist. Night Moves is not a heist movie. It’s a movie about three characters. Who happen to be staging a heist.
Furthermore, all three characters exists in very different spaces, with very different relationships to the natural order. The yurts, damp trailers, and hot tubs are all expressions of Oregon as a character (every state should be so lucky to have a filmmaker as talented as Reichardt), each different, each home to a different perspective, each a careful part of the storytelling. Reichardt’s naturalism is smart enough that it’s not just naturalism. And once again, she knows how to end a movie. This is the fourth time I’ve been punched in the gut by Reichardt’s opinion about what best constitutes a final scene: Old Joy, Wendy & Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff, and now Night Moves. For a woman who knows how to let her movies breathe, she sure knows how to take your breath away.
Night Moves is currently in limited release.