If you had to pigeonhole writer/director Kelly Reichardt — which would be a disservice to both pigeons and holes, by the way — you could say she is a maker of road movies. In 2006, Old Joy gave us two old pals on a camping trip. 2008’s Wendy and Lucy had a woman and her dog on their way to Alaska. Meek’s Cutoff, in 2010, was set in 1845 on the Oregon Trail.

But in all these tales — co-written, like her latest, with Jonathan Raymond — the road is the medium, not the message. Sometimes the journey is more important, sometimes the destination matters most, and often it’s just the sense of motion that drives matters forward. The characters might just as well be going in circles, and sometimes they are.

Night Moves tells the story of three domestic terrorists and their plan to blow up a hydroelectric dam. Their off-the-grid lifestyle is made clear early in the film when one of their number suggests calling another to say they’re running late, but the would-be caller says he doesn’t want to have to stop and look for a pay phone.

They’re played by Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard, three actors at ease with long, occasionally awkward silences. This is important since their characters — Josh, Dena and Harmon, respectively — are not the most talkative bunch. They seem to have long ago dispensed with the rhetoric of activism and decided to let their actions speak for them. Josh in particular seems almost mute as he wanders the woods watchfully, carefully re-treeing a bird’s nest that has fallen from its perch. If 19th-century Romantics had gone in for terrorism, it might have looked something like this.


Reichardt’s films are known for their quietude, and Night Moves is no exception. In fact, for a movie about constructing and deploying a 1,500-pound fertilizer bomb to take out a concrete dam, there is remarkably little noise, fuss or manufactured tension. The lilting score might have been lifted from a nature documentary, and is as often as not drowned out by actual sounds of birdsong and running water.

We watch as the conspirators buy a used boat — its name gives the film its title — then brazenly make a large purchase of fertilizer, and set up their homemade floating bomb. But even when things start to go wrong — a suspicious fertilizer salesman, a car that won’t start, an inquisitive hiker — there is never any artificial sense of stress. Even a balky timer fails to create any ticking-clock tension. Michael Bay would have an apoplectic attack watching this low-key, thoughtful thriller.

But the film’s strength lies in its stillness. Robbed of heavy bass vibrations or anything more cinematographic than a leisurely pan or tracking shot, we are forced to confront (quietly) the enormity of what this trio is up to, just as the participants must consider it themselves. Paradoxically, the film suggests that, even while the act might be egregious, it also amounts to literally little more than a drop in the bucket. Someone outside the group notes that there are at least 10 more dams on the same waterway.

Night Moves marks the most plot-heavy of Reichardt’s movies to date, but the director nicely bends the needs of the story to meet her own. It would be fascinating to watch her tackle the horror genre next. If anyone could construct a quiet, pastoral slasher picture, it would be this unique and distinct filmmaker.

Night Moves opens Aug. 8 at the Lightbox in Toronto.