Hands up all of those who think Jesse Eisenberg is a one-trick pony.
Aha! We saw those hesitant limbs. Deny it not: it has been a common accusation (and indeed, misconception) that Eisenberg doles out the same Jew-fro’ed, nervy geek in every film in which he stars. Playing similar characters in quick succession is a risk for any actor; in Eisenberg’s case, it’s an additional misfortune that he played two nerds forced to come out of their shell in two films concerned with Lands in quick succession. Aside from pursuing Adventure and the occasional Zombie, check his back catalogue. He can be withdrawn (Roger Dodger), confident (The Social Network), all-out charming (Now You See Me) or gratingly motormouthed (30 Minutes Or Less, which was about 60 minutes too long). He proved his mettle most pointedly this year in The Double, in which he played two characters with the same face and body but distinct personalities. It’s no Dead Ringers, but Eisenberg (both of them) held the rest of the self-important Gilliam rip-off in place. Even if the claims of Eisenberg’s samey performances have died down, his discomforting turn in Kelly Reichardt’s masterful Night Moves ought to put the kibosh on them for good.
Unlike Eisenberg, most people know what they get with Reichardt, namely character and turmoil. Her two previous works exemplify her approach. As unlikely as it seems, she deals in danger. Threat comes from real life, be it economic (Wendy and Lucy) or purely survivalist (Meek’s Cutoff). For all the hardship, the pace is calm, almost distantly so. Danger usually entails urgency, but it can be just as powerful when far-off and unseen; the perception of danger is all that is required. With Night Moves, Reichardt ups the immediacy and the paranoia, to show that even the best laid plans of mice and eco-terrorists go oft astray. Within the confines of a solid three-act structure is a canvas for drip-feed excitement and intelligent thrills.
Based on/ripped off from Edward Abbey’s 1975 novel ‘The Monkey Wrench Gang’ (The argument progresses through the courts, but we have the film regardless), our focus is on Josh (Eisenberg) and Dena (Dakota Fanning, leaving behind the thankless roles of her younger years for something with a bit more thought put in to it), two members of an Oregon environmentalist commune specializing in growing organic produce. All well and good, except they’re cooking something up besides puy lentil broth. From early on, Eisenberg’s brooding stillness and Fanning’s distant intelligence suggest malicious intent. The first act establishes the plan; with the help of veteran Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard, bringing that smile to new heights of superciliousness), they aim to bring down the Green Peter hydroelectric dam with the help of several hundred pounds of homemade explosive. Supplies are sought. Explosives are constructed. A boat is bought. Confidence is aplenty. There is never any doubt in this trio’s minds that they are doing the right thing, with Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond’s script giving them enough rope with which to hang themselves later on. The homemade nature of their endeavour doesn’t inject an overbearing realism to proceeding, just enough believability to suggest this could happen. For a thriller, that suggestion is plenty.
Act Two is all in the execution. Classic character building leads to a date with destiny, as our Oregon Three take the boat, the ominously-named Night Moves, on to the Santiam river with its dangerous cargo. There is no established guarantee; the fear on all three faces is justified, and we are right there with them. All movie plans are foolproof, but Reichardt milks the tension. Is everything in place? Have they forgotten something? This is the high point; at its best Night Moves is stupendously riveting. Reichardt puts her protagonists through the ringer with ease; the segue from characterisation to no-frills tension is the work of someone operating at peak powers. It’s a scenario in which Eisenberg could have gone twitchy and Fanning could have become shrill. They are still, calmly quaking. Whether the bomb goes off or not, you will be on edge to find out.
All this leads to a third act that pales in comparison with the second, if only because the execution of the plan is just so tense. The fallout of the SS Night Moves’ final journey slowly but surely takes its toll on Josh. Harmon and Dena manage to keep their heads down, but Eisenberg puts a human face to their actions. Try as he might, cracks slowly appear in Josh’s façade, and the stresses will only lead to yet more extreme measures. If the lesson of the cost of idealism is nothing new, Night Moves at least puts a price tag on that cost. Cash in all comfort and prospect of happiness, and you’ll come out with change. The final shot of Eisenberg’s face shows a man who has paid said cost, although whether it was paid gladly remains up for debate. The efficiency and class of Night Moves, on the other hand, is undeniable.