By Christopher Sharrett.

Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves was one of the few films of the last season that deserved real recognition and got only a little; it was swamped, as per custom, by the usual blockbusters and played only in the cities and university towns. Reichardt is emerging as an estimable American filmmaker. Her Wendy and Lucy (2008) is one of the few films (another is Frozen River, also 2008) about women surviving, without prospects, in the “new normal” of financialized US capitalism. Her Meek’s Cutoff (2010) is a remarkable revisionist western that chronicles truly hardscrabble pioneer life while intelligently debunking the myth of the male frontiersman with his limitless professionalism.

The common approach to Night Moves is to begin by saying that it is about “radical environmentalists,” the term beloved of the media. I might use this term the day mention is made of “radical capitalists,” or “radical despoilers of the environment.” Reichardt’s film addresses the terrible predicament of the global environment, although its political vision is troubling.

Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), Dena (Dakota Fanning), and Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) are activists who undertake a dangerous plot to blow up a dam; one immediate issue here is the failure adequately to introduce the various environmental threats posed by dams in such a way that the young peoples’ cause becomes at least marginally noble. In the nightworld of this film, we are expected to be educated about the subject, yet the mise en scene suggests that the young people are threats as much as the world they occupy, that they are as sinister as the evils done to the environment. Yet Josh and Dena project a basic innocence and naiveté, although Josh begins to affect a macho posture as the plot proceeds, particularly as he comes under the sway of Harmon, a clearly disturbed Iraq veteran. The film brought to my mind, at some points, Black Sunday (1977), where the crazed Vietnam vet wants free-floating revenge against the civilization that wronged him, letting him find common cause with Palestinians operating in the U.S. The problem here, as in many such films of the period, is the failure to deal intelligently with the Vietnam incursion nor the apartheid facing Palestinian Arabs.

night_moves_3Harmon is, thankfully, not the well-oiled killing machine that is the typical figure of the post-Vietnam cinema, but the film has the person in charge of the bombing a madman, whose plot kills a bystander. Peter Sarsgaard, often cast as an oddball or villain (the repugnant Lovelace), is fully exploited here, his interest in the environment very doctrinaire, his leading of the plot a series of orders that place him in minimal danger. Instead, Dena is placed in the dangerous position of buying pounds of fertilizer that is the substance of the bomb.

photo-Night-Moves-2013-1The gender politics of the film are its real concern. Dena is trapped between two men, one of whom seems gentle and a potential lover, the other an overbearing screwball whose instability is hardly outweighed by his technical expertise – which in any case makes the three the target of a manhunt for a capital felony. Acting from long distance over a phone, Harmon obliquely orders Josh to kill Dena; he strangles her in the sauna bath where she works. Josh, then on the run, wanders anxiously into a sporting goods store where the narrative ends, Josh feeling he is being watched from all quarters as we see the endless racks of needless consumer goods so implicated in environmental destruction.

Reviewers have remarked that Night Moves is Reichardt’s “sell-out” picture, since its takes are not as long as her previous work, her narrative not as oblique. But who has seen this film? And Reichardt takes her time, showing us, in the establishing sequence, several careful, still-life style compositions, the first of a huge rusting culvert spewing water (?) into a river. We then see a pricey wooden sauna bath, where silent, aging women bath nude. The scene projects the desperate alienation of the bourgeoisie in search of eternal life; but, more negatively, there is a little of the sense that aged women should not be seen nude, and that they in particular are key symbols of middle-class decadence. But Reichardt’s virtue here is her insistence on taking her time, permitting us to examine the image.

Few have noted that the film takes its title from Arthur Penn’s 1977 film, one of the most important works of its era. Private eye Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman), a man who hates modernity and all of its features (he berates his girlfriend for making him watch a Rohmer film, which he terms “a little like watching paint dry”). Reichardt’s film shares a bleak vision with Penn’s, although Penn’s is a radical gesture, with the can-do male a poseur at a dead end, unable to solve anything, finally adrift in the middle of the proverbial endless sea. Reichardt’s film punctures male professionalism mainly as embodied in Harmon, but he, like the others, is rather undeveloped. Penn’s film shares the pessimism characteristic of 1970s ideology, but the fall of the so-called hero at least leaves open the possibility of a different future with new gender relations. Reichardt gives us little more than despair, with current youth unable to accomplish much – the truck farm where Josh works seems something close to peeing in the ocean, as it where, with nothing adequate in challenging the existent political-social order.

The pessimism of Night Moves runs deep, but its negativity may be necessary as an appraisal of where we are. But it is not Salò, a film that is a “negative affirmation” reminding us that fascism/death is a perpetual threat even when some celebrate the “freedoms” of consumer democracy. Night Moves, on the other hand, seems to foreclose all change, seeing the young as holding no positive potentials given their naïveté, ignorance, and irresponsibility.

Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Communication and Film Studies at Seton Hall University. He writes often for Film International.

3 thoughts on “Night Moves: Pessimism Running Deep”

  1. Great piece, Chris. At first glance at your article title, I thought this WAS about Arthur Penn’s 1975 movie of the same name – another film that didn’t get the attention it deserved – and which also has a sense of “pessimism running deep.” You’re absolutely right that “Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves was one of the few films of the last season that deserved real recognition and got only a little . . . Reichardt is emerging as an estimable American filmmaker” with such films as Wendy and Lucy (2008) and Meek’s Cutoff (2010). Far from “selling out” with this film, as some have suggested, this is a radical experiment in every respect, and Fanning, Eisenberg and Sarsgaard all seem fully committed to the project, as is Reichardt. I can’t think of another recent American film that takes as many real risks as Night Moves – great work!

  2. I too found this film deeply problematic. While I very much admire Kelly Reichardt’s aesthetic choices (it is a beautifully made film & so is Wendy and Lucy); ultimately I am very disturbed by the pessimism and fatalism of Night Moves.

    I may be wrong, but the message of the film seems to me to be that all activism is futile. Do we need yet another voice to tell us not to rise up? I think not.

    It is profoundly fatalist — as you point out, Chris. Plus, I don’t think we need any more stereotypes of the neoliberal yuppie activist. Look at how environmentalists are portrayed in popular culture. It is always the same tired stereotypes; stereotypes that push young people away from activism. The film feels uncomfortably preachy to me, and it suggests that the only thing we can do in the face of global warming and destruction of the planet is to grow organic food and keep our mouths shut. It seems to come from a place of privilege and futility.

    In addition, I thought the ‘activists’ were cardboard cut-outs — the rich yuppie daddy’s girl who funds the activism (and is the first to wimp out), the sociopathic manipulative militarist who cannot be trusted, and the lost (and not particularly bright) young activist who turns into a murderer when things unravel. I was really “with” the filmm– until it turned against itself in a way, and suddenly went for obvious melodramatic appeal and a fatalism that is undeniable. Oddly, I actually do see it as a “sell out” film, but probably not in the same way that others view it is a “sell out” film.

    I still think the best film in the environmentalist vein is the classic film Safe (1995) by Todd Haynes, which is arguably even more disturbing than Night Moves. Safe disturbs the viewer, however, in order to make us think and act, at least in my humble opinion. I should mention that Haynes produced Night Moves.

    I love that you note that in the mainstream there is never any mention of “radical capitalists,” or “radical despoilers of the environment.” That is significant, but I wonder why Reichardt introduces “radical environmentalism” only to ultimately dismiss it? Sad. But maybe that is her point.

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