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When the Levee Breaks

Crime and punishment for Oregon eco-saboteurs in Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves

In Kelly Reichardt’s new film, Night Moves, a ragged trio of would-be eco-saboteurs plot to blow up a hydroelectric dam in western Oregon. There is Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), a steely young man full of sidelong glances and inarticulate rage; Dena (Dakota Fanning), a doe-eyed rich girl levitating on hippie zen; and Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), the elder, who emanates the cool, malevolent calm of nihilism.

With the quiet, crackling earnestness of kids playing house, the threesome set their plan in motion, buying a boat and 1,500 pounds of fertilizer, with cash, of course. Their grim excitement is pinched by nervy paranoia and an impending sense of doom, as fissures appear in the bulwark of their scheme: surveillance cameras abound; a car stops on the outlet road above the dam just as they set the explosive timer. And, when the boom comes, there is a nightmare of collateral damage, at once inevitable and shocking.

Reichardt is a filmmaker of surpassing patience, far more interested in the emotional consequences of our decisions than the actual how and why of human actions. Her films (Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff) focus on the mute interstices of fate where lonely, searching people run smack against the edge of an abyss. 

In Night Moves, Reichardt is unconcerned with the heavy hand of political cant or whether an act of terror will forestall the apocalypse. Like Dostoyevsky, she is more interested in the minutiae of crime and punishment — how idealistic impulses blind us to the shrapnel sent out by our deepest, darkest desires, and the toll we pay for forging meaning in the midst of chaos.

Night Moves is full of excruciating suspense and intricate espionage, but the movie ends, as T.S. Eliot warned of the world’s demise, not with a bang but a whimper — a haunting whimper that asks: What have I done?