It's been three years since I saw Meek's Cutoff and I still haven't found the words to adequately express how much I loathe that fucking movie. I could say that it's boring, interminable, pretentious, pointless, stupid... the list goes on and on, but that still wouldn't be enough to sufficiently describe my hatred for that catastrophic waste of potential. Such a wonderful cast wasted on stupid characters, and such gorgeous visuals destroyed by horrible editing. I know there are a lot of critics and moviegoers out there who enjoy the film -- enough to merit an 85 percent Tomatometer, anyway -- but I can't for the life of me understand why. So now Kelly Reichardt, the director of Cutoff, has come back with Night Moves. Another film with a sterling cast and an 80-something Tomatometer, and another film set in my sweet home state of Mother Oregon. I generally make a policy not to go into a film if I know it's going to be awful, but I have to admit that I bought a ticket for this one against my better judgment. Once bitten, twice shy. On the other hand, if so many people see something about Ms. Reichardt that I'm missing, maybe a second look is warranted.
From the very first scene, unfortunately, it's made clear that a lot of the problems from Cutoff will make reappearances. Conversations are held a mile away from the camera so we can't hear a thing. Every shot is perfectly framed, yet they go on for so long past the point of anything relevant that it becomes ungodly boring. The wonderful actors give flat and unmemorable performances to flat and stupid characters. And the whole movie ends with a big fat middle finger that resolves precisely nothing.
HOWEVER, none of these problems are anywhere near as bad as they were in Reichardt's previous film. In fact, the actors and their characters become far more interesting after the hour mark or so, ditto for the various themes being explored. It's also much easier to go with the slow pacing from the outset, because this movie actually has a plot.
Before going further, I think a brief primer on Oregonian culture might be helpful. In a nutshell, urban liberal Portland determines where the rest of the state is going because that's where all the people are, and the rest of the state is full of rural conservatives who HATE us for it. Moreover, the culture and influence of Portland have been growing at an alarming rate, such that there are some who consider Vancouver, WA, to be just another Portland suburb. There's one character in the film who calls Bend "the latest outpost of the Portland Empire," and he's not wrong.
My point? Put yourself in the place of a farmer who's lived and worked in the shadow of a huge metropolis that's a three-hour drive away. You're living and working in the middle of nowhere, toiling for city people who don't even acknowledge you as fellow Oregonians. To people from out of state, and even to people within the Willamette Valley, "Portland" has become so synonymous with "Oregon" that it's like you don't even exist. Come to think of it, if you're living in upstate New York, I'd wager that some of this might sound familiar. Anyway, when you put yourself in this mindset, you'll be in a much better place to understand our main characters.
Jesse Eisenberg and Dakota Fanning play Josh and Dena, a couple of twenty-somethings living in rural southern Oregon (just outside of Ashland, from what I can gather). They're also a couple of wannabe eco-terrorists who decide that something should be done about humankind destroying the environment for the sake of our petty comforts. To that end, they take purchase of a luxury boat, the eponymous "Night Moves," off some yuppie in Medford who was selling it at a discount price. They hand the boat off to a disgruntled ex-Marine (Harmon, played by Peter Sarsgaard), and the three of them devise a plan to fill the boat with a ton of fertilizer-derived explosives. They will then take their homemade torpedo to a nearby hydroelectric dam and blow it the fuck up.
Just from that bare-bones premise, you may already be able to spot a few problems. You'd be forgiven for thinking that the film would be very preachy, expecting us to sympathize with a group of terrorist maniacs. Moreover, why a hydroelectric dam? Sure, dams can change a region's ecology and harm local fish life, but it's still infinitely preferable to fossil fuels. Hydroelectric power may hardly be perfect, but neither is wind power (noisy and harmful to bird life), solar power (ill-suited to the cloudy Pacific Northwest), and nuclear power (In a state that won't even authorize fluoridated water? Good luck.).
In short, the thesis statement of our protagonists is that humans are destroying the world just by existing, and even a small, stupid action against it would be better than doing nothing. It's basically more of mankind's hubris, to think that we're capable of saving or destroying something that's survived countless natural disasters for billions of years before our distant ancestors crawled out of the slime. It's a subtle -- but often lost -- distinction to place one's sympathy with the firm and endlessly durable rock rather than the short-sighted and easily killable creatures living on it. One of them treats a volcano like business as usual, the other treats it like the unstoppable death of millions, I rest my case.
As for our main characters themselves, it's worth noting that they plan to make it out of this plot alive. This, to me, seemed like the wrong move to make. Given their philosophy of "the whole planet and humanity is doomed, so fuck it, let's do something stupid," I would have expected our protagonists to go out like suicide bombers. It would have taken the film to some very dark and interesting places, commenting on the alienated millenials of today who feel that they have no place in the ruined world they're inheriting. In fact, it's my personal hypothesis that we're seeing so many public shootings that end in suicide for precisely this reason. But I digress.
It also bears mentioning that our lead characters are trying to keep a low profile through their whole ordeal, which means that they are total enigmas. They barely even talk to each other if they can help it. So we're watching some characters we know nothing about, planning to bomb a dam, and we're supposed to be rooting for them?!
The film plods along with its bland characters and its abysmally slow pacing until the start of the second half, when the script gets flipped in some very intriguing ways. What it boils down to is that the film quits focusing on the justifications and starts focusing on the consequences.
For instance, what if something goes wrong and someone dies? Saving the environment is important and all, but if even one human being dies in the process, is that acceptable? If so, then how many people have to die until it becomes wrong? Moreover, what does bombing a dam really accomplish? This isn't the Hoover Dam we're talking about (which, by the way, would probably need a couple of nuclear bombs to be taken down), or even the Bonneville Dam. We're talking about a tiny little dam in middle-of-nowhere Oregon, only one of several in that same river. Is that really worth risking several lifetimes in prison?
Speaking of which, these characters start out with the intention that they'll go through with this and get back to life as normal. Like nothing happened. Naturally, the characters quickly learn that the very moment they illegally purchased 500 pounds of fertilizer, "normal" ceased to exist for them. These three had left Kansas without a single ruby slipper between them. For the rest of their (presumably short) lives, they'll be constantly looking over their shoulders, grappling with guilt over what they've done, leery of every car and passerby as they wonder which will be the one to murder and/or arrest them.
What's even better is that the characters start to question themselves and each other. I went through the first half of the film complaining about how Josh and Deena's relationship was so ill-defined, only to find out that they never really knew much about each other to begin with. None of these characters know how well they can hold up under pressure. Will they talk or leave town? How far would one go to stop the other from cracking? This is where the talent of the cast comes in. These conflicts are so well-played by Eisenberg, Fanning, and Sarsgaard that I genuinely wanted to see where their characters would go.
This brings me to one of the reasons why the slow pacing is halfway feasible in this film: There's actual tension. Even if we don't care about what happens to the characters, we can at least get some solid drama out of wondering what will happen with them, and how the unfolding plot will affect the greater communities. But that only gets the film so far. Too often, the movie's dramatic tension is entirely false, as prolonged scenes resolve themselves through inconsequential means. Also, the fact remains that too many shots are held for way too long, which gets boring very quickly.
Speaking of callbacks to Cutoff, this film even has a kind of "Meek" character. Harmon is very much like Meek in that he's a guide who may not be trustworthy or competent enough to justify his reckless confidence. Yet the premise didn't work in Cutoff because the characters in that film were trekking through the middle of nowhere without another guide, so they were stuck with the mistake of hiring some drunken idiot they had to follow no matter what. The travellers in Cutoff didn't have the option of turning back. The would-be bombers of Night Moves do. As to whether they'll take that option or what will happen if any of them deviate from the plan, well, that's another source of tension.
Night Moves is definitely an upgrade from Meek's Cutoff, but that's kind of like saying a C is an upgrade from an F. The film does have various themes explored in interesting ways with assistance from some wonderful actors, but all of that is mostly kept to the second half. There are a lot of problems from the first scene onward that Reichardt just can't -- or won't -- seem to shake. The pacing is awful, the editing is stupefyingly boring, and that final scene fudges the landing (though not as badly as Cutoff did). Sure, the pacing lends itself to some tense moments, but that doesn't amount to much when most of the tension ends up ringing hollow. Reichardt may be a dazzling photographer, seemingly incapable of framing a bad shot, but she is a piss-poor storyteller.
If you're one of those blessed few who were able to sit through Meek's Cutoff without slipping into a coma, I've no doubt that you'll think this one is a masterpiece. But even if you hated Cutoff or didn't see it at all, I can gladly recommend this one for a rental.