The most radical thing about this eco-terrorism drama is its quiet patience and formal vigor. While most studio pictures slap together their images with all the care of a grocery-store deli clerk assembling the ham and carrots on a cheap-o party platter, Kelly Reichardt, the director of Night Moves, favors the old-fashioned approach of poets and Jenga players: If you pull one shot out from one of her shrewdly constructed sequences, the whole thing would collapse. Moments may take longer to build here than in most films, but once Reichardt has suggested what they're building to, she cuts away.
Often, she frames her stars — Dakota Fanning and Jesse Eisenberg, mostly — as if they had just happened through a wider world that Reichardt's camera just happens to be documenting. The lakes, campsites, communes, and farm-supply stores where Night Moves' tense and moody story unfolds exist unperturbed by the concerns of the film's protagonists, a subtle inversion of how kids-on-a-mission movies usually work. This crew is barely the hero of their own story, much less a film or a movement.
Eisenberg's Josh, Fanning's Dena, and Peter Sarsgaard's Harmon have banded together to blow up an Oregon dam, because doing so might "send a message" about our priorities, our wastefulness, and the possibility of enacting change. They know that no single act of destruction would meaningfully set back the indignities humanity has wrought upon the Earth, but this stubbornly unromantic film shows them, on occasion, succumbing to the belief that they are about to save the planet. Then, since they're all shifty characters who don't quite trust each other, they swallow that belief back and concentrate on the job.
That patience of Reichardt's, and her dedication to showing us exclusively the things that we must see, makes the scenes of preparation — boat parking, fertilizer buying — hypnotic and suspenseful and practical all at once. (The details, of camping, communal cooking, and leftist-enclave chitchat, feel bang-on.) Reichardt strips it free of Monkey Wrench Gang–style myth. Occasionally, she jolts us with surprise danger: a cut to a video camera observing a key scene; the sweeping brights of a car where they shouldn't be; a freshly killed deer on the side of a country road, bathed in red brake lights. At other times, when we're observing these zealots at their tasks, Reichardt teases out the moral questions: Do we hope for them to succeed? Do we think such destruction might accomplish something more? Could such an attentive and realistic depiction of this act, performed by A-list movie stars, inspire real-world copycats?
I'll not say anything about whether these true believers succeed. The bombing attempt, brilliantly staged by Reichardt, occurs with quite a bit of movie left to go. The aftermath is a serious comedown, especially once the conundrums suggested in the buildup get aired explicitly; occasionally, as it rises to an inevitable tragedy, Night Moves flags, telling us things it had already stirred us to know. Still, the bleak final scenes are anticipated by every element of the opening ones. These romantics have not made their too-big world a better place for all of us: They've made getting by in it even harder for themselves.
Fanning dominates the film in the first half, as a smart young woman given to prickly know-it-allism; she's hilarious as her Dena improvises the magic words to con a skeptical store manager into letting her buy 500 pounds of (explosive) fertilizer. But brooding Eisenberg commands the final third, his hooded eyes and bony jaw now those of a man. He's always played uneasiness well; now he shows us the anger and petulance that distinguished his Mark Zuckerberg clenching into something truly threatening. The right wing really shouldn't worry about Night Moves: Nobody who hangs on till the end is going to emulate this lot.