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In Kelly Reichardt’s spare, eco-terrorist thriller, the two spurts of violence that disturb the placid pine forests of the Pacific Northwest are each hazy with fog. One is a misty nighttime bombing of a hydroelectric dam, the other a fatal encounter in a sauna.
A thick moral cloudiness hangs over “Night Moves,” Reichardt’s fifth film. Three disillusioned environmentalist radicals conspire to send a message by blowing up a dam that has upset the local ecosystem. Clad in wet wool hats, they’re far from romantic terrorists like Carlos the Jackal. One, after all, is played by Jesse Eisenberg.
They can hardly articulate their extremism. Josh (Eisenberg), a taciturn organic farm worker in Oregon, mumbles something about a local dam “killing all the salmon just so you can run your (expletive) iPod every second of your life.”
He’s joined by a reckless former Marine named Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), knowing in matters of destruction, and Dena (Dakota Fanning), an earnest college dropout rebelling against her family’s wealth.
What Reichardt captures in “Night Moves” is the bitter despair of those fighting the hydra-headed forces of rampant consumerism and environmental destruction. They may be tragically misguided in turning to violence, but they’re spoiling for any kind of tangible action.
Their urgency warps their logic to the point of violence, with unforeseen consequences. Dena, though young and breezy, is almost nihilistic: “It’ll all go fast in the end,” she says, predicting the end of days with a shrug.
A manic, stuttering awkwardness has long been Eisenberg’s stock in trade. But he’s been expanding (he also stars in the recently released doppelganger thriller “The Double”), and in “Night Moves,” he has an atypically quiet intensity. Reichardt’s sparsely naturalistic dramas with Michelle Williams _ the drifter tale “Wendy and Lucy” and the Western “Meek’s Cutoff” were more bare, but “Night Moves” still gets much of its drama from the currents of paranoia and uncertainty that flicker across Eisenberg’s face.
“Night Moves” has a sure-handedness that shows Reichardt is still growing as a filmmaker. The scene at the dam, in particular, is suspenseful, and the rugged Oregon landscapes are vivid. But the movie also sticks mainly to familiar rhythms of such thrillers — the conspiratorial build up and the fractious fallout.
Reichardt, filming the action objectively, doesn’t judge the actions of the three. But the alternative in the film — living peacefully in yurts removed from the rest of the world — also doesn’t feel like a satisfactory answer for Reichardt.
If pressed, I’d still take 1975’s pulpy “Night Moves,” with Gene Hackman as a private eye, over Reichardt’s film. But “Night Moves” has its own mournful moodiness, heavy with a bleak helplessness about how to defend a Mother Nature beset on all sides.
“Night Moves,” a Cinedigm Entertainment release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “some language and nudity.” Running time: 112 minutes. Three stars out of four.