Eliza Hittman is an award-winning filmmaker, born and based in New York City. Her critically acclaimed debut feature film, It Felt Like Love, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013 and was released in 2014 by Variance Films. She received an MFA from CalArts, School of Film / Video (2010) and teaches graduate level film directing at Columbia University, School of the Arts.
I had a rather funny Kelly Reichardt experience at Sundance 2011, where Meek’s Cutoff was screening. I had just arrived at the filmmaker check-in area. It was my first time at the festival, premiering my short film Forever’s Gonna Start Tonight. The first time anyone goes to Sundance is a mess, but once you figure it out, you just want to go back. I was no exception. I was confused, excited and terrified. I went to the registration desk to check in. A nice younger guy came out from the desk, sat me down patiently, and began explaining everything. “You will be picked up here and brought there.” “You have a meeting with this person tomorrow.” I was being given the royal treatment and he seemed a little intimidated by me. At some point, I realized none of this made sense – the screening times were all wrong. I told him this, he argued, then got up to go double check. I snuck a peek into his binder, noticing that the sheet he was filling out said “Kelly Reichardt” at the top. I realized I had no idea what Kelly Reichardt looked like. I got out my phone and did a quick image search. I’m not comfortable asking you to do an image search of me and of her, but if you did, well… (This was the first time I was mistaken for Kelly Reichardt, but it wasn’t the last.)
I like the old Night Moves just fine – Arthur Penn’s racy 1975 thriller starring Gene Hackman, which prominently features a young Melanie Griffith’s bare breasts. Actually, I like Reichardt’s Night Moves too, although why she chose to name her film after a relatively neo-noir ’70s thriller eludes me. “It’s a thriller!” “It’s her most commercial film to date!” “It stars that girl from Twilight!” Those were the first rumors I heard. Only the first of these is true – coincidence or not, there is something undeniably retrograde about Reichardt’s approach to an existential modern narrative with her deliberate pacing, notably quiet performances and careful camerawork. Although traces of Arthur Penn’s original could, perhaps, be found here, for me Night Moves harkens back to the early road movies of Monte Hellman (Cockfighter, Two-Lane Blacktop). As for the other rumors: The film is not very commercial (in a good way), and it stars Dakota Fanning (who isn’t really “that girl from Twilight,” aka Kristen Stewart, even though she’s in Twilight).
Night Moves tells the story of three Oregonians – Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), an embittered introverted organic farm worker; Dena (Fanning), a disillusioned college dropout who works at a holistic spa to rebel against her own privileged background; and Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), an off-the-grid ex-Marine explosives expert. Portlandia fans these are not. The three join forces to blow up a dam, a symbol of an industrial era that prioritizes power over nature; in this case, iPods over salmon. We’re given little backstory about main character Josh. When I was in college, I remember hearing that students were “volunteering” (aka paying) to go spend their summers on organic farms in Northern California or Oregon. I thought this was funny – shouldn’t you get paid to work on a farm? It’s hard work. I wondered if Josh was one of these kids, a lost upper-middle-class 24 year old from uptight Connecticut who didn’t know what to do with his life and ended up staying on at the farm after he volunteered.
The film truly shines in its first act. It opens with a startlingly phallic image – a static shot of a water main which after several moments begins to spray. It is process-driven rather than expositional: the characters do not spend much time expounding on their radical beliefs or even hinting at what’s to come. Instead Reichardt skillfully takes an observational approach to creating cinematic tension, as the characters encounter small, benign obstacles while they prepare for their mission and buy a small speedboat (called “Night Moves”) and a large supply of ammonium nitrate fertilizer.
Early on, Dena and Josh memorably attend a screening of an environmental activist documentary projected onto a sagging canvas tarp. The film-within-a-film contains timelapse landscape shots and shots of clouds quickly passing through the sky accompanied with a deadpan voiceover that bleakly states facts and figures about the destruction of the environment. We cut to a reaction shot of Josh seething with disdain. It’s clear that he thinks this sort of passive resistance is a pointless waste of time. The filmmaker and the character are responding to our society’s tired, formalistic approach to cinema as a tool to address political crisis, the pointlessness of using the medium to effect change. The audience gets it – you’ve seen the film before and it’s terrible. Does Reichardt here sympathize with what’s to come, believe that it is somehow justified?
The sequence in the film that begins with the boat being transported to the lake, as the trio goes to blow up the dam, is undeniably fantastic. Small issues ratchet the tension to 11 and the slow approach to the dam is nerve-wracking. At last, they pull off what they set out to do. Although smartly we do not see but only hear the results, just like the characters themselves. Of course, something goes wrong, and sadly it’s kind of the most obvious thing. This is handled, though, in quite an interesting way. When Dena starts to freak out after hearing the news, Josh simply responds, “What did you think was going to happen?” The line is delivered with such dead-eyed callousness, it becomes clear that Josh isn’t an environmentalist, he’s a psychopath. Whether due to his extremist beliefs (shared, incidentally, with most of the people around him) or to something internal, Josh is far beyond the line of human empathy.
After the explosion, Night Moves morphs into a paranoia film as Josh becomes increasingly suspicious that Dena might confess. At first, Josh’s simmering paranoia seems unfounded. The film here subverts the clichés of paranoia: while we assume Josh’s paranoia is ridiculous – after all, how could anyone know? – we find, surprisingly, that everyone actually does know. Because of a certain sympathy for his actions, perhaps, the farm community isn’t talking, but it’s clear he has to leave. One person, however, is talking a little too much: Dena.
From this point, the film builds to a conventionally (dare I say De Palma-esque) climactic sequence where Josh breaks into Dena’s work after hours, intent on silencing her. The subjective shots of Dena through Josh’s POV while hiding in the closet seem to contradict Reichardt’s rigidly objective shooting style and disrupts the films overall aesthetic philosophy. While the psychology and motive of the characters is deemphasized earlier in the film, here they are over articulated, perhaps a misstep.
There is a similar moment in the middle of Wendy and Lucy when Michelle Williams’ Wendy escapes a creepy homeless man in the woods. She runs to a gas station bathroom and breaks down. In an otherwise observational and patient film, here Reichardt resorts to jump cuts and shaky camera to tell you how the character feels – a cheap Hollywood trick. In Night Moves, the switch is so extreme. Is this an intentional imperfection?
Night Moves is on one level an environmental political thriller, and on another teases with a classical psychological triangulation that explores what happens when three characters gets caught up in a morally distorted situation. It is ripe with Freudian imagery from its opening shot, to the reaction shots of Josh looking away with disgust and discomfort as mature naked women descend the steps of a mineral spa, to his apparent emasculating inability to act on his desires for Dena. What’s clear is that he is visibly conflicted about his sexual impulses and his moral conscience is immature. On the one hand, he appears to empathize with a dead pregnant doe who’s been hit by a car and he drags her body off the road, but when Dena becomes a symbolic moral arbiter, Josh becomes increasingly resentful and concerned with her impulse to confess. Ultimately, Josh is consumed with efforts to preserve himself and avoid punishment above anything else.
Reichardt brings to the thriller her own breed of hyper-contemporary outsiders and prodigal sons. As a filmmaker, I am amazed with Reichardt’s ability to cast name actors and restore them with humanistic qualities that celebrity has seemingly stripped away. She is able to evoke qualities that one would normally attribute to a Bresson film or the textures of the working class folks from early Mike Leigh films. Reichardt is able to access their palpable inner worlds regardless of whether their close-ups are shot in moody shadowy lighting or broad daylight. Eisenberg’s role choices over the past five years have created a popular image of him as a neurotic nerd who is overly verbal and precocious. Here we have a rare opportunity to see him as fragile, pensive, unpredictable and deeply angry. Fanning, almost unrecognizable as a brunette stripped of her homecoming queen persona, gives an effortless performance, ironically as a young woman trying to dissociate from societal expectations. Across the board, the performances are revelatory.