Early in Kelly Reichardt's "Night Moves" there's a scene where Josh and Dena, the furtive young eco-terrorists played by Jesse Eisenberg and Dakota Fanning, attend a screening of an earnest environmental documentary introduced by its director. Dena asks her what people should do about the ruinous threats to the Earth and its consumers. Sorry, there's no simple answer, she replies: "I'm not focused on big plans. I'm focused on a lot of small plans." Dena and Josh appear puzzled by this response. They have something larger in the works.
"Night Moves" follows their explosive big plan, targeting a dam on Oregon's Santiam River, as Josh and Dena acquire a speedboat, purchase hundreds of pounds of explosive ammonium nitrate fertilizer and set the timer. Then, in the second half of the movie, we watch these true believers — Peter Sarsgaard plays the third, cooler-headed member of the team, as a Marine Corps-trained loner — as they're hounded by the ramifications of their actions.
Part dispassionate procedural, part observational horror story, "Night Moves" contains blessedly little exposition or polemical fodder. It's driven by behavior and the details of the mission at hand. This was true also of Reichardt's earlier films, including "Wendy and Lucy" (one woman's experiences on the knife-edge of homelessness) and "Meek's Cutoff" (a 19th century Oregon Trail journey, pensive and refreshingly low-key). Enraged and motivated by the water and electricity consumption of the average American consumer, these three see their lives as revolutionary acts of courage. But the paranoid look in Josh's eyes, and the stress-related rash developed by Dena, indicate a shared and radically uneasy conscience.
With her precise framing and acute eye for both scenery and faces, Reichardt does some wonderful work here, though her script, co-written with her frequent partner Jon Raymond, has its clunky aspects in the second half. Reichardt runs into many of the same challenges Ramin Bahrani confronted in his recent and most heavily plotted drama, "At Any Price." Both directors are superb at capturing the telling, unguarded detail, the "tell" on an actor's face revealing a character's flickers of doubt. When it comes to grinding through the melodrama beneath the behavior, they're less convincing, less certain of the value.
Still, "Night Moves" is a better, more complicated picture than some of the early festival reviews out of Venice suggested. You may not buy the third-act developments, but Reichardt and her actors see to it that you believe in how these people got to that third act in the first place.
"Night Moves" - 3 stars
MPAA rating: R (for some language and nudity)
Running time: 1:52
Opens: Friday at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave.