Review: 'Night Moves' ★★★

Early in Kelly Reichardt's "Night Moves" there's a scene where Josh and Dena, the furtive young eco-terrorists played by Jesse Eisenberg and Dakota Fanning, attend a screening of an earnest environmental documentary introduced by its director. Dena asks her what people should do about the ruinous threats to the Earth and its consumers. Sorry, there's no simple answer, she replies: "I'm not focused on big plans. I'm focused on a lot of small plans." Dena and Josh appear puzzled by this response. They have something larger in the works.

"Night Moves" follows their explosive big plan, targeting a dam on Oregon's Santiam River, as Josh and Dena acquire a speedboat, purchase hundreds of pounds of explosive ammonium nitrate fertilizer and set the timer. Then, in the second half of the movie, we watch these true believers — Peter Sarsgaard plays the third, cooler-headed member of the team, as a Marine Corps-trained loner — as they're hounded by the ramifications of their actions.

Part dispassionate procedural, part observational horror story, "Night Moves" contains blessedly little exposition or polemical fodder. It's driven by behavior and the details of the mission at hand. This was true also of Reichardt's earlier films, including "Wendy and Lucy" (one woman's experiences on the knife-edge of homelessness) and "Meek's Cutoff" (a 19th century Oregon Trail journey, pensive and refreshingly low-key). Enraged and motivated by the water and electricity consumption of the average American consumer, these three see their lives as revolutionary acts of courage. But the paranoid look in Josh's eyes, and the stress-related rash developed by Dena, indicate a shared and radically uneasy conscience.

With her precise framing and acute eye for both scenery and faces, Reichardt does some wonderful work here, though her script, co-written with her frequent partner Jon Raymond, has its clunky aspects in the second half. Reichardt runs into many of the same challenges Ramin Bahrani confronted in his recent and most heavily plotted drama, "At Any Price." Both directors are superb at capturing the telling, unguarded detail, the "tell" on an actor's face revealing a character's flickers of doubt. When it comes to grinding through the melodrama beneath the behavior, they're less convincing, less certain of the value.

Still, "Night Moves" is a better, more complicated picture than some of the early festival reviews out of Venice suggested. You may not buy the third-act developments, but Reichardt and her actors see to it that you believe in how these people got to that third act in the first place.

"Night Moves" - 3 stars

MPAA rating: R (for some language and nudity)

Running time: 1:52

Opens: Friday at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave.

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
Related Content
  • Review: '22 Jump Street' ★★★

    Review: '22 Jump Street' ★★★

    The peculiar sweetness of "21 Jump Street" has taken a hiatus in "22 Jump Street," a brazen sequel that's both slightly disappointing and a reliable, often riotous "laffer" in the old Variety trade-magazine parlance. No question about it, I laffed, more at the little things — Channing Tatum trying...

  • Lolla day 1: Best and worst, plus superlatives

    Lolla day 1: Best and worst, plus superlatives

    One day down! Here’s the best and worst we saw at Lolla on Friday, plus a few superlatives from day 1. Best: Anyone who knows me knows I was bound to pick Paul McCartney as my favorite act of the day. The Beatle came out and gave it his all with more than two hours of hits, tributes and jokes about...

  • Lolla day 1: Let's just rename it Paul-a-palooza

    Lolla day 1: Let's just rename it Paul-a-palooza

    What can you really say about Sir Paul McCartney, the former Beatle, pop music pioneer, worldwide cultural icon, and all-around great guy, that hasn't already been said? I mean, seriously. With the Beatles changing music for the better, becoming a pop culture institution and being "more popular...

  • Aldermen looking to stop stores from getting around plastic bag ban

    Aldermen looking to stop stores from getting around plastic bag ban

    Chicago's ban on plastic bags starts to take effect at many big stores Saturday, but an alderman who helped craft the law already is talking about changing it in order to thwart a few large retail chains that he says are trying to skirt the new rules.

  • State police: Man shot while riding in van on Eisenhower

    State police: Man shot while riding in van on Eisenhower

    A man was shot multiple times while traveling in a minivan on the inbound Eisenhower Expressway on Friday morning, authorities said.

  • Lollapalooza liquor gardening: fact or fiction?

    Lollapalooza liquor gardening: fact or fiction?

    It may sound like an urban legend: Music festival-goers bury bottles of booze in Chicago parks, plot a GPS location for the goods and uncover them days later when the festival comes alive.