Context is everything. We think we know the "sort of person" who pays to see films by Kelly Reichardt. Since the critical success of Old Joy in 2006, the American film-maker has perfected a line in oblique, haunting non-stories. Wendy and Lucy weaved its way about the tale of a woman and her dog. Meek's Cutoff was nearly a western, close to being a drama and weirdly gripping throughout.
The people who watch Reichardt’s films – and who make them, for that matter – are unlikely to vote Republican or approve of environmental rape. She may, of course, have fans in that camp, but they will feel somewhat isolated when taking their trip to their local wicker-clad arthouse.
All of which is worth saying because, if you were in the mood, you could read the tense, peculiar Night Moves as an attack on the environmental movement. The film goes among three extreme activists – "terrorists" to most – who elect to blow up a dam for largely obscure reasons.
None of the trio is even vaguely appealing. Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) is smug, monosyllabic and emotionally remote. Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) is ruthless, sleazy and passively aggressive. Dena (Dakota Fanning) is naive, unimaginative and easily led. What they do makes little sense. What they say is often hogwash. The longer it goes on, the less adorable the team seems. These people are everything Rush Limbaugh imagines environmental busybodies to be (and more).
Yet it is fair to assume that cast and crew – Sarsgaard is a vegan, Eisenberg a vegetarian – are largely on board with the general principles that drive the mob. Night Moves is, thus, a much more interesting film than Zal Batmanglij's recent, heavily loaded The East. "Killing the salmon so you can run your fucking iPad all the time!" Josh says at one point. His disgust is justified, but his team's response doesn't read like even an attempt at rational solution.
Night Moves offers, among other things, a meditation on the moral corruption that attends the decision to move towards violent action. There is no more poisonously empty phrase than "Well, people get killed in wars". Nobody quite uses those words here, but, in the later stages, Reichardt's film is very good on the consequences of such glib dismissals. "What did you expect to happen?" somebody asks Dena. What indeed?
As every US critic has already pointed out, compared with Meek's Cutoff or Wendy and Lucy, Night Moves hurtles at the pace of Die Hard/Star Wars/The Indie 500 (delete according to taste). This is all relative, of course. Photographed in beautiful murk by Christopher Blauvelt – sometimes casting perfectly innocent characters in sinister backlights – the film moves no faster than Arthur Penn's same-titled creepy noir from 1975. Moreover, like that film and much of Reichardt's earlier work, this Night Moves feels no need to offer us a neatly tidied conventional ending.
The picture is, however, properly engaging throughout. Taking her cues from Hitchcock, Reichardt invites us to connect (if not quite empathise) with unlikable characters as they attempt to accomplish undesirable outcomes. When Dena tries to buy explosive fertiliser from an agricultural supplier, the audience squirms with frustration as she runs up against successive bureaucratic obstacles. When local police stop their car, we think of Marilyn Crane – a thief, remember – trying to shake off the patrolman in Psycho.
The end effect is nicely unsettling. We share the gang’s irritation, but we are never exactly on their side. As a result, the issues under discussion can be considered with a degree of disinterest. A very impressive, very odd piece of work.