Night Moves” has its Madison premiere Friday at 7 p.m. at the UW-Cinematheque screening room, 4070 Vilas Hall. R, 1:52, three and a half stars out of four.
I would be very surprised if Kelly Reichardt’s “Night Moves” isn’t inspired at least in part by the 1971 Sterling Hall bombing on the UW-Madison campus. Four anti-Vietnam protesters tried to blow up the Army Mathematics Research Center using an Econoline van filled with ammonium nitrate, and a university researcher was accidentally killed in the explosion. Many would call them murderers, but they thought they were saving lives.
A similar moral ambiguity, or at least moral distance, infuses Reichardt’s film, which looks at three eco-terrorists planning a siimlar attack. What they’re doing is a crime, but they speak with the fervent urgency of freedom fighters. (“People are going to start thinking. They have to.”) All the while, the film, co-written by Reichardt and her longtime screenwriting partner Jon Raymond (“Meek’s Cutoff,” “Wendy and Lucy”) prefers to observe rather than judge.
Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) is a twitchy Oregon CSA worker for whom selling organic vegetables isn’t enough. He and two friends, a verbal college dropout named Dena (Dakota Fanning) and a ragged ex-Marine named Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), methodically go about their plans, getting fake IDs, buying 500 pounds of fertilizer, and buying a used speedboat (named “Night Moves”). As in a thriller like “The Day of the Jackal,” the film builds suspense in its scenes of quiet preparation, and it’s a little while before we even figure out what the trio’s plan is.
They’re going to drive the boat up next to a hydroelectric dam and blow it up.
This may seem like unusual territory for Reichardt, but just as “Meek’s Cutoff” was a boldly different take on the Western, here she twists the thriller genre to suit her own purposes. She’s interested in the distance between the righteous cause that the bombers are fighting for and the uneasy consciences they’re having to live with in order to do this. There’s as much tension in the interplay between the three characters, especially the unproven Dena and the deceptively laidback Harmon, as there is in scenes where the trio sneak their explosives-filled boat into the water in a campground full of unsuspecting tourists. We wonder which of the three may turn out to be the weak link in the chain.
The first hour of “Night Moves” is masterful, as we watch the careful preparations and wonder if the acvitists will succeed. Reichardt sets their dark dealings against a deceptively benign landscape of tranquil forests, feed supply stores and farmers’ markets. There’s a great scene where Dena spars with a fertilizer dealer (James LeGros) who won’t sell her the ammonium nitrate, and Dena keeps her cool long after a less nervy person would have bailed out.
The second half, dealing with the aftermath both moral and legal of the attack, is a little less successful, relying almost entirely on Eisenberg’s performance as Josh wrestles with his conscience. But this is still a powerful film from one of America’s best filmmakers who continues to push herself.