Jesse Eisenberg follows up his bravura 2014 performance in The Double with another winner in Night Moves, a chilling eco-terrorism drama that taps into the actor's darker side, and benefits from it.
Josh (Eisenberg) is a radical environmentalist and organic farmer. Along with his two like-minded accomplices, Dena and Harmon (Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard), he plans to blow up a nearby dam, thereby making some sort of grand ecological statement.
The trio purchase a boat, which they name Night Moves, and the boat isn't for fishing. In a terrific scene, Dena tries to buy an abundance of fertilizer from a quietly alarmed clerk played by James Le Gros. The exchange is frightening in that the clerk senses that something fishy is going on, but finds himself under pressure by onlookers to just sell the stuff to the innocent looking Dena.
As is often the case, blowing things up in an unsanctioned, unsupervised fashion can often have unexpected consequences. Josh, Dena and Harmon have to deal with circumstances in the aftermath that question their cause and loyalty to one another.
Writer-Director Kelly Reichardt and co-screenwriter Jonathan Raymond do a nice job of walking the line with the subject matter and character development. These are mightily flawed people who are totally blowing it. Their core message and doctrine starts out with something meaningful and virtuous, but it gets bastardized by the time they are placing fertilizer bombs in the bow of a boat.
What makes Josh and Dena so damn scary is that they have the makings of decent people. You don't get the sense that the two of them are the sort of hardened criminals that can jeopardize lives and property for a cause. Eisenberg and Fanning both infuse their characters with a sense of clumsiness, as if they are in way over their heads. They achieve this through quiet means, rather than loud, outward awkwardness. Both of them deliver excellent, subtle work.
On the flipside, Sarsgaard's Harmon is a little sketchier, and wonderfully so as portrayed by the actor. Harmon may or may not have a truly troublesome past, and as a mastermind of their scheme, provides unstable and untrustworthy leadership. While he doesn't have much screen time (his character is often a voice on the phone) he is memorably creepy and unsettling.
While little sister Elle is smiling and sleeping her way through the summer blockbuster, Maleficent, Dakota Fanning has been taking part in more serious fare lately. She had her run of blockbuster movies with her small part in the Twilight films, but she's been mighty impressive in smaller, edgier films like This Motel Life and The Runaways. With her work in this movie, she continues to prove that her talents are going to take her well past her former child actor stature.
Eisenberg had been irritating me a bit before this year. His rushed, rapid line delivery benefited him in films like The Social Network, but I was beginning to think he was a one trick, snarky pony. Josh represents a more focused, darker side to the actor that I hope he continues to explore (he also showed that side in the aforementioned The Double). I say it again: I'm looking forward to his take on Lex Luthor in Batman v Superman: The Dawn of Justice.
For anybody thinking a film like Night Moves is suggestive or dangerous in that it could give stupid people stupid ideas, I'd back off that platform. Nothing works out right in the land of Josh.
The movie is a strong statement on how good, planet-conscious intentions can be transformed into totally moronic acts by selfish people who aren't using their brains. The trio at the center of the Night Moves are terrorists and, in the end, there is nothing just about their cause.