By John Stiller
As I sat down in the theater to watch Kelly Reichardt’s latest film Night Moves, I couldn’t help the unreasonable but nagging suspicion I was really about to see The Bob Seger Story. My only association with the phrase “night moves” was Seger’s annoying hit song I’d endured on classic rock radio stations when I was growing up in the mid-eighties, hoping to hear Iron Butterfly or Blue Oyster Cult. The day after I saw it, I spoke with a friend and mentioned I’d been to the movies. When I told him I’d seen something called Night Moves, his face morphed into a quizzical frown. This might have been a mix of never having heard of it, and also thinking it was odd for anyone to seek out and watch a bio pic of soft rock superstar Mr. Seger. I then had to overcome his doubts as I explained that a film with such an unfortunate title was worth seeing.
Reichardt’s latest is one of the best badly-named movies I can think of (William Friedkin’s Sorcerer would probably top that list.) Night Moves is the story of two naïve environmental activists named Josh and Dena (played by Jesse Eisenberg and Dakota Fanning) who turn into eco-terrorists by helping to blow up a hydro-electrical dam in a forest in the Pacific Northwest. As they prepare for the bombing, they take many precautions to ensure that no one is killed in the attack. Their actions are meant to be a statement against industrialization, only sabotage, not murder. But despite all of their efforts, a lone camper in the forest dies in the ensuing flood when the dam is destroyed. After that, Josh and Dena are guilt-stricken but attempt to move on. However, as Dena begins to crack up, Josh grows more and more concerned. But is he concerned about her, or about saving his own skin? In the end, it’s pretty apparent.
I’ve never read The Monkey Wrench Gang, Edward Abbey’s classic underground novel from the mid-seventies, but it apparently also features eco-terrorists wanting to blow up a dam. Because the plots are very similar, producers for an upcoming cinematic adaptation of Abbey’s novel filed for copyright infringement against Reichardt. I can’t address how much of the story is “adapted” from Abbey’s novel. Is it a homage? Is it just stolen? (I was in a creative writing class around 2005 and someone submitted a story about Earth Liberation Front-type extremists blowing up a dam. I’d never even heard of The Monkey Wrench Gang at that time, so the “inspiration” for this fellow student’s story slipped by me.)
What I can address is Reichardt’s skill as a filmmaker. I haven’t seen her other work, but here she is approaching Hitchcockian-levels of skill and mastery. My description of the plot might make it sound like a rather drab and didactic examination of the morality of sabotage and terrorism with regard to the environment. While those issues are there, they are not as important as the experience of watching the film, which operates on the level of a slow-burning suspense thriller. Admittedly, the first half drags as we see the preparations for the bombing. But after the deed is done, the narrative moves at a steady but engaging trajectory as both Jesse and Dena begin to unravel. The tension mounts as they have to face the fact that their actions led to the death of an innocent person, something neither of them wanted. But both disintegrate in their own ways.
Eisenberg’s performance is particularly effective in conveying paranoia and guilt in a person so quickly ripped out of what he knows to be familiar. As he takes further actions in an attempt to not get caught, it’s interesting how he conveys his befuddlement and ignorance of the situation and himself. He doesn’t face who he’s become until the very last frame of the film, when he stares into a sideway mirror in a store, looking warily at both himself and who is behind him. I have to admit that during the first half, I almost nodded off into an afternoon cat nap a couple of times. But the measured pacing is deliberate and ultimately rewarding, as the tension of the narrative builds, going from being only mildly interesting to almost riveting. The issues raised about the necessity/morality of destruction in the interest of social change are interesting but not particularly new. Even Roger Corman’s 1956 movie It Conquered the World has Peter Graves and Lee Van Cleef debate this very topic before fighting off a deformed alien invader from Venus that looks like a giant rotten carrot.
The emphasis of wanting to only sabotage industrial type facilities or structures without killing anyone reminded me of Nelson Mandela’s stance within the African National Congress’s militant-wing Umkhonto we Sizme. Mandela helped found Umkhonto we Sizme in the early 1960’s to begin a campaign of sabotage against South African industry. It was his intention that no one would ever be killed in their attacks. But after Mandela and many others were sent to prison, the group began a bombing campaign against “soft targets” throughout South Africa. Over the next 30 years, many civilians were killed in these attacks, both black and white. Did they have a right to do this? All forms of peaceful protest, negotiations, non-violent resistance, and civil disobedience had been attempted by the African National Congress throughout the 1950’s. All of this was met with harsher, more violent repression and brutality from South African authorities. Violence and terrorism seemed to be the only means left. But when you resort to those type of tactics, you begin to treat individual human beings as abstract symbols of an idea. Does your right to express yourself and seek change through terrorism overrule someone else’s right to their own individual life? Explain to the two English children who died in 1993 because of the Irish Republican Army’s Warrington bomb attacks (the inspiration for the Cranberry’s song “Zombie”) that their lives only mattered because they were a symbol of England’s continuing control of Northern Ireland. Would they understand then? Did their parents understand? But for the African National Congress, particularly after Mandela’s arrest, they were fighting for their individual lives as well. So whose life is more important?
Is terrorism the only answer left for the environment? As the long-term effects of the Industrial Revolution continue to make themselves apparent, obviously the Earth Liberation Front and others like them see no other alternative. Is blowing up one dam going to make a difference anyway? No, and that issue is addressed toward the beginning of Reichardt’s film. It is supposed to be a statement—a symbolic gesture (an updated version of the old anarchist idea of “propaganda of the deed”) that says that no, we will not accept this, and we will fight back in however meager and futile ways we can. But when people die in such attacks, how can that be justified? So far, no one has died directly from any attacks by the Earth Liberation Front or its sympathizers. But if they did, what does that mean? Arson and the use of bombs ultimately cannot be contained, and eventually, someone will die. Is death the necessary precursor for social change? Is the situation that desperate? And who has the right to decide who’s an acceptable target and who’s not? Night Moves does not answer these questions. If it did, I probably wouldn’t like it. But I’m just so grateful I didn’t pay ten dollars to see a movie about Bob Seger.