Night Moves (2013)

by Afra Nariman

Night Moves (2013)

Director: Kelly Reichardt

Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard

Although different in some ways from Reichardt’s other work, mainly in that there’s a more explicit narrative plot that the film follows (although somewhat unexpectedly) — the beautiful imagery that is a staple in her oeuvre is still at the surface of this one. The film beautifully illustrates the frightening hopelessness of the environmental crisis facing our world, and the aimlessness of those doing their best to try and make a difference, but not knowing how to meaningfully. The film explores the personal and communal consequences in taking the wrong steps towards doing so. 

The film begins by introducing the notion that instead of approaching the environmental crisis from a perspective of needing to have a “big plan” to combat the issues at hand — which may seem daunting to most — we should have a bunch of “small plans.” The story of the film then shows how one of these “small plans” play out in real time. Three radical environmentalists set out to blow-up one dam, and do so. Noticeable here is that the explosion and subsequent destruction of the dam is not made to be a spectacle, or even shown on screen at all, but rather only noticed through a faint sound in the background as the three characters drive away. Most of the time, films like this tend to emphasize these would-be climactic moments, but Reichardt intentionally ignores it, for lack of a better word. The point is not in rallying people to view the environmentalists’ plan as a heroic one deserving acclaim and celebration — although they are presented as having their hearts in the right place, determined to make a positive difference — but instead, as an act of quiet desperation sought out in midst an aimlessness that only grows after they carry out their plan. The film goes on to show their small plan as not having made any difference regarding the big problems. In short, Reichardt undercuts the expected route of such a story, both narratively (the small plan doesn’t work) and aesthetically (ignoring the explosion). Notably, both of these things begin to be realized at about the same moment. 

The next morning after carrying out their plan, one of the first things we hear is from a newly introduced side-character — who is presented as also being environmentally conscious and passionate about seeing change — claiming that this one (relatively) small act makes no difference — it’s just “theater,” and he remains focused on “results,” not “statements.” In this context, he says: 

“Yeah sure, they had a fine point. But one dam? Who cares? That river has ten dams on it. The grid is everywhere. You need to take down, like, 12 dams to make a difference, 100…”

To add on to the feeling of defeat in a moment built up to be celebrated, a bystander was reported to have been killed in the course of the night due to the unexpected destruction of the dam and the loads of water that rushed through the wreckage. The entire rest of the film after the execution of their plan (over an hour worth of film time, most of the runtime), does not mention or discuss their plan in any further detail, relevance or give it any semblance of meaning, or indication of it making any sort of difference. Instead, the characters face a downward spiral due to their guilt regarding the unintentional death of the bystander, and the focus of the film shifts to that storyline.

Contrary to how the film begins, with the notion that the answer to how to approach the environmental crisis should be approached with small plans rather than a big one, it essentially ends with the characters and their mission seeped in an even greater aimless hopelessness. Rather than developing the ideas and sentiments introduced in the film’s beginning, the film more-or-less rejects them insofar as their effectiveness, and instead adapts the perspective echoed by the side-character I mentioned earlier, that these small plans won’t make enough difference; that it would be naive to believe anything less than the successful implementation of a “big plan” would make a substantial difference. In other words, that is how hopeless the situation really is.

Reichardt, by ignoring the “exciting” elements that could have been emphasized in a story like this — yet still creating effective suspense through the natural circumstances being depicted (and how they’re shot) — and by de-centering the focus of the story in its second half, has effectively made a film that in both form and story, captures the existential aimlessness of wanting to make a difference, but not knowing how to make a meaningful one; and the desperation in attempting to find that answer.


Rating: 4 out of 5.

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