09/10/2013 06:03 EDT | Updated 11/10/2013 05:12 EST

Quick TIFF Reviews: Night Moves (Dir. Kelly Reichardt)

Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy, Meek's Cutoff) has made her career on the fringes of the Hollywood system, making complex, austere films on tiny budgets, and building up a reputation for a singular vision. But, with Night Moves, a generic take on the moral questions associated with terrorism, Reichardt's vision feels frustratingly blinkered.

Dakota Fanning and Jesse Eisenberg play environmentalists in Bend, Oregon who have hatched a plan (in concert with a hermit played by a perfectly cast Peter Saarsgard) to blow up a dam on a local river. The film follows these young idealists as they go about performing the tasks necessary to pull off their act of eco-terrorism: We watch them as they buy a boat, talk their way into purchasing $500 pounds of fertilizer, and then as they pack the boat with explosives. Slow moving and dialogue-sparse, the first half of the film is impressively tense, if irritatingly obtuse.

Who are these young people? How did they get to such a place in their lives that they're willing to take such shocking risks? Reichardt seems to think it's more interesting not to tell us. But the unfortunate result of this decision is that I found it almost impossible to give a damn about them, their eventual fates, and even the questions with which the film asked me to wrestle. By mid-point Jesse Eisenberg's sullen, reticent performance was merely grating. (Then again, I have come to fear that Eisenberg has but two gears: sullen/reticent and Michael Cera.)

As the full weight of what they have done begins to sink in, the trio's confidence begins to unravel. Offering her best work to date, Fanning shifts from a steely-eyed determination to a guilt-plagued anxiety that she wears on her very skin (in the form of a nasty rash). Now, as the police close in, they must decide where, and to what, they will run. What does escape look like now?

As a lesson, Night Moves feels pretty unnecessary. Don't bomb dams and expect that you'll feel good afterward.

(Sure, I'm being flip, but how much further into this question do we really need to go? We either dismiss these three as misguided criminals at the outset of the film or by the midway point. The film never invites us, not for a second, to understand why they've chosen these violent tactics over peaceful and constructive actions.)

It is such a frustrating waste of a truly complex and interesting setting for the film - the semi-rural, back-to-the-land communities of high plains Oregon are exactly the place to explore neo-utopian environmentalism. Indeed, all of the scenes in which we catch glimpses of this community and their activities are compelling, and present characters who feel like they have backstories and purpose (unlike Eisenberg's Josh, a veritable blank). Too bad the film couldn't have been about some of them, instead. We might have learned something.


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