NIGHT MOVES B
USA (112 mi) 2013 d: Kelly Reichardt
There’s East coast weirdness, like Sean Durkin’s exposé of the lingering psychological aftereffects of cult paranoia in Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), and then there’s West coast weirdness, like Antonioni’s acid trip reflection on the radical 60’s in Zabriskie Point (1970), where this film is more reminiscent of the latter, a modern era, eco-terrorist version of the 60’s Weather Underground. All dialogue is kept to a minimum, allowing only a scant outline of a story to develop, where Reichardt’s interest is delving under the surface, probing into the restless psychological territory, where the film is really told in two parts, the events leading up to the incident, and what comes afterwards, where both are given equal treatment. Once again examining souls living on the edge of society, pitting man against nature, the film is shot once again in the lush interior forest regions of Oregon, Reichardt’s fourth consecutive film shot there, where there’s no question that the stunning landscape is the feature character. Humans are little more than ants that play a minimalist role in determining its fate, curiously disinterested in the land and how to use it, or developing any concept of global sharing, where according to this film, science suggests the toxic damage currently being done to our global ecology is rapidly outweighing any attempts at curative effects to stave off what amounts to catastrophic outcomes, where at current rates the oceans may lose nearly all its fish within forty years. There’s an interesting movie within the movie shown to environmental activists in the region that suggests the future is overwhelmingly grim, leading one lone individual to feel pretty hopeless, yet they are encouraged to do what they can to save the planet. Given that reality, with no more backstory, we follow the lives of three dedicated individuals who have already decided upon a course of activism to blow up a hydroelectric dam, though like Fassbinder’s THE THIRD GENERATION (1979), certainly part of the intrigue is seeing how ridiculously amateurish and unprepared this group is in considering likely outcomes and possibilities, where they are thoroughly unprepared, sometimes comically so, to deal with real consequences.
Jesse Eisenberg as Josh is playing totally against type, as he’s known for his Woody Allenesque rapid fire dialogue, but here he barely utters anything, convinced of his cause, where there’s nothing to discuss. Living on the grounds of a food coop, he is rooted close to the land, making a statement by his chosen lifestyle. Dakota Fanning is Dena, running an upscale women’s spa out in the woods, where she helps women find their inner harmony, complete with flute music along with other tranquil sounds playing throughout. These two set the stage, as they live nearby and are apparently friends, seen buying a boat with a live-in captain’s quarters (called Night Moves in homage to Arthur Penn’s taut 1975 post-Watergate thriller starring Gene Hackman), before they set off to find their third partner, driving a good part of the day and early evening just to get there, where who else but the always slightly unhinged Peter Sarsgaard plays Harmon, an ex-Marine who is a trained explosives expert. Drinking beer to calm their nerves, each has their own agenda, where Harmon questions the need for Dena, as she’s not as tight as these two comrades in arms who have probably pulled off other underground acts together, but this is obviously a step up. Dena handles herself admirably the next day, however, thinking quickly on her feet, pulling off the sale of 500 pounds of ammonium fertilizer without providing appropriate identification, seen mixed with the 1000 pounds Harmon already had afterwards, treated and loaded into the boat, driving to a nearby campsite by evening. The centerpiece of the film is nicely structured, set in the calm and quiet of the night, underlined by soft piano music from Jeff Grace, as the tense atmosphere is driven by the meticulous detail of the planning, much like the wordless bank heist sequence of Jules Dassin’s RIFIFI (1955), where what’s supposed to go perfectly starts out as a well-precisioned machine before things start to unravel. The actual incident is never shown, but can be heard from a distance offscreen, where the audience is immediately attuned to the paranoia seeping in as they make their getaway, remaining on high alert for the duration of the film, where fear is palpable as their nerves are tested by a variety of circumstances, each one accumulating more underlying dread, becoming an existential drama on Crime and Punishment.
Shot almost like a silent era film, this is largely a study of facial expressions and interior reactions, where the dire moods of Josh, never once breaking into a smile, exude the intensity of the moment, where the food coop employees and their families are crammed around a computer screen the next morning following the news, where the reaction is interesting, as the most radical member among them, perhaps the one Josh most wished to impress, is Sean (Kai Lennox), the guy running the coop, yet he’s the one least impressed by the actions, calling it “theatrical,” as it doesn’t go far enough to have any meaningful or longlasting effect, while the kids are more electrified by the subversive nature of the terrorist act happening in their neck of the woods. The focus is again on Josh, as the camera never leaves his face, where the constant presence is burning a hole through his skull, penetrating his psyche, where his calm exterior belies his trepidation, where he is completely at odds with his natural surroundings, where kids all around him are playing with the animals and having fun, but he’s overly consumed in work, where every noise sets off the thought of a potential police visit. Almost immediately, their agreed-upon phone silence is violated, especially after word gets out in the news that a nearby camper has been missing since the blast. One by one, their frayed nerves unravel, where it only takes one to set off the others, causing a chain reaction of exacerbated horror that only increases the terrifying fear of being exposed. Reichardt balances this growing instability with the routine farm chores of the day, along with banal chatter and ordinary conversations, where Josh is petrified, feeling lost and helpless, growing worse when it’s discovered that the missing man is found dead, pushing them all over the edge in justifying any idealism in their actions. Instead, like the 60’s Weathermen who took great care in bombing buildings, not people, the unexpected can happen, as people can be where you least expect them, and tragically, what’s meant to convey human outrage at despicable corporate practices becomes little more than murder. This increasingly troubling thriller shows the effects of idealism gone wrong, where instead of elation, the participants are filled with guilt and regret, as the dilemma rises to unforeseen heights, where the fear continues to escalate, never really going away, much like the panic at the end of Martha Marcy May Marlene where cult escapees are forever looking over their shoulders to see if someone is following them. Reichardt’s method is more minimalist and understated, where instead of revealing any grand political motivation, everything is implied, where it’s up to the audience to infer their own motives.
The film does recall an op-ed piece written by former Weatherman William Ayers, "The Real Bill Ayers" in The New York Times, December 5, 2008:
In the recently concluded presidential race, I was unwillingly thrust upon the stage and asked to play a role in a profoundly dishonest drama. I refused, and here’s why.
Unable to challenge the content of Barack Obama’s campaign, his opponents invented a narrative about a young politician who emerged from nowhere, a man of charm, intelligence and skill, but with an exotic background and a strange name. The refrain was a question: “What do we really know about this man?”
Secondary characters in the narrative included an African-American preacher with a fiery style, a Palestinian scholar and an “unrepentant domestic terrorist.” Linking the candidate with these supposedly shadowy characters, and ferreting out every imagined secret tie and dark affiliation, became big news.
I was cast in the “unrepentant terrorist” role; I felt at times like the enemy projected onto a large screen in the “Two Minutes Hate” scene from George Orwell’s “1984,” when the faithful gathered in a frenzy of fear and loathing.
With the mainstream news media and the blogosphere caught in the pre-election excitement, I saw no viable path to a rational discussion. Rather than step clumsily into the sound-bite culture, I turned away whenever the microphones were thrust into my face. I sat it out.
Now that the election is over, I want to say as plainly as I can that the character invented to serve this drama wasn’t me, not even close. Here are the facts:
I never killed or injured anyone. I did join the civil rights movement in the mid-1960s, and later resisted the draft and was arrested in nonviolent demonstrations. I became a full-time antiwar organizer for Students for a Democratic Society. In 1970, I co-founded the Weather Underground, an organization that was created after an accidental explosion that claimed the lives of three of our comrades in Greenwich Village. The Weather Underground went on to take responsibility for placing several small bombs in empty offices — the ones at the Pentagon and the United States Capitol were the most notorious — as an illegal and unpopular war consumed the nation.
The Weather Underground crossed lines of legality, of propriety and perhaps even of common sense. Our effectiveness can be — and still is being — debated. We did carry out symbolic acts of extreme vandalism directed at monuments to war and racism, and the attacks on property, never on people, were meant to respect human life and convey outrage and determination to end the Vietnam war.
Peaceful protests had failed to stop the war. So we issued a screaming response. But it was not terrorism; we were not engaged in a campaign to kill and injure people indiscriminately, spreading fear and suffering for political ends.
I cannot imagine engaging in actions of that kind today. And for the past 40 years, I’ve been teaching and writing about the unique value and potential of every human life, and the need to realize that potential through education.
I have regrets, of course — including mistakes of excess and failures of imagination, posturing and posing, inflated and heated rhetoric, blind sectarianism and a lot else. No one can reach my age with their eyes even partly open and not have hundreds of regrets. The responsibility for the risks we posed to others in some of our most extreme actions in those underground years never leaves my thoughts for long.
The antiwar movement in all its commitment, all its sacrifice and determination, could not stop the violence unleashed against Vietnam. And therein lies cause for real regret.
We — the broad “we” — wrote letters, marched, talked to young men at induction centers, surrounded the Pentagon and lay down in front of troop trains. Yet we were inadequate to end the killing of three million Vietnamese and almost 60,000 Americans during a 10-year war.
The dishonesty of the narrative about Mr. Obama during the campaign went a step further with its assumption that if you can place two people in the same room at the same time, or if you can show that they held a conversation, shared a cup of coffee, took the bus downtown together or had any of a thousand other associations, then you have demonstrated that they share ideas, policies, outlook, influences and, especially, responsibility for each other’s behavior. There is a long and sad history of guilt by association in our political culture, and at crucial times we’ve been unable to rise above it.
President-elect Obama and I sat on a board together; we lived in the same diverse and yet close-knit community; we sometimes passed in the bookstore. We didn’t pal around, and I had nothing to do with his positions. I knew him as well as thousands of others did, and like millions of others, I wish I knew him better.
Demonization, guilt by association, and the politics of fear did not triumph, not this time. Let’s hope they never will again. And let’s hope we might now assert that in our wildly diverse society, talking and listening to the widest range of people is not a sin, but a virtue.