Kelly Reichardt isn't from Oregon. The filmmaker was born in Florida and now lives in upstate New York, where she teaches at Bard College. But despite her geographical remove, Reichardt has become the pre-eminent cinematic chronicler of this state. Unlike Gus Van Sant, who has mostly stayed in Portland, Reichardt's work has traveled: 2006's Old Joy soaked in the thermal baths at Bagby, 2008's Wendy and Lucy found Michelle Williams at a woebegone Walgreens in North Portland, and in 2011's pioneer drama Meek's Cutoff, a wagon train wandered through the desiccated high desert near Burns.
In her new film, Night Moves, another assured drama that's unapologetically Reichardtian—which means it's deliberate, unobtrusive, formally careful and resolutely unromantic—we travel the farthest south yet, to the old-growth forests by Roseburg and the Siskiyou Mountains near the California border, which Reichardt makes sure to capture dappled with the soft red light of the magic hour.
Jesse Eisenberg, looking only slightly awkward in Carhartts and baseball cap, plays Josh, who lives in the foothills of those mountains, sleeping in a yurt and working on a collective farm. (It's a working farm owned by friends of author Jon Raymond, Reichardt's perennial screenwriting partner and flesh-and-blood Oregonian.) But selling organic cabbage at the Ashland farmers market isn't enough for Josh, so he's plotting to blow up a hydroelectric dam—to send a message, he fumes, to people who are "killing all the salmon just so you can run your fucking iPod every second of your life."
That's about as explanatory as Josh gets. Reichardt has always been less interested in her characters' root motivations than in how they handle themselves moment to moment, and so Night Moves guides the viewer through the extensive planning of Josh and his accomplices. They are Dena (Dakota Fanning), a wealthy college dropout, and Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), a hardened ex-Marine with a criminal past. The first half of the film plays out as a procedural drama. But unlike last year's lesser eco-thriller The East, which leaned too heavily on impassioned ideological outbursts, Night Moves draws tension from the logistical minutiae of ecoterrorism. We observe the trio buy a boat (it's that vessel, not the Bob Seger song, that gives the movie its title) from a Medford man whose backyard is a veritable water park; persuade the manager of a farm-supply store to sell them an ungodly amount of ammonium-nitrate fertilizer; and mix that fertilizer with diesel fuel before loading it into the boat. Reichardt, with her patient camera pans and sparse, naturalistic dialogue, quietly lures in the viewer. We may not know exactly what has made this trio turn to destructive tactics, but sympathizing with them feels besides the point—like the characters in Reichardt's other movies, they're outsiders, and we're on the fringes with them.
It helps that Reichardt has a talented cast, particularly Fanning and Eisenberg. Fanning brings a scrappy defensiveness to her role, while Eisenberg plays not one of his live-wire chatterboxes but a reticent loner who still harbors hints of childishness—we catch him doodling a mustache onto a man's face in a brochure. Rather than relying on his vocal gifts, Eisenberg makes small shifts with his eyes and in the clench of his jaw. After blowing up the dam, his face melts into relieved triumph that's quickly supplanted by an expression of nagging paranoia.
That's a shift the film takes overall, moving from a logistical study in its first half to a psychological one in the second. Though it loses some focus in doing so, it remains firmly rooted in the present moment. Even as it tugs at big questions—how do we live with the ramifications of our violence? Where is the line between mere political theater and meaningful statement?—the moral framework is neither obvious nor oppressively muddy.
And throughout, the attention to setting is deeply satisfying, without devolving into unthinking romanticization of Cascadian splendor. There are fertile farms and majestic mountains, but also clear-cuts and rivers filled with dead trees. The most pointed jab might be a line from Josh about a new golf course in Bend that he decries as the latest outpost of the Portland empire, what with its $8 cups of gourmet coffee and taxidermy-lined walls. His words reflect what Reichardt herself has said about Oregon, especially Portland, being overrun and expensive. She sounds almost like a native.
Critic's Grade: B
SEE IT: Night Moves is rated R. It opens Friday at Fox Tower.