The film starts with Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) and Dena (Dakota Fanning) visiting a dam, Josh mouthing off about the lack of fish ladders and the environmental injustice of the dam. Later Dena goes to a viewing of an environmental documentary and hears the concerns of the viewers, most of whom feel impotent against the scale of the problem. The documentary maker advocates myriad small projects, but this is not what Josh and Dena have in mind. They aim to blow up the dam and have joined forces with ex-US marine and current eco-warrior Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) to fulfil this mission.
Josh and Dena buy a boat and head to Harmon’s place in the pines. New identities are handed out, there is much talk of staying undercover, never using real names and cutting all cellphone contact once the job is done. But the next morning in a local diner Harmon is greeted by name by the waiter. It turns out that he has spent some time in the can, so not only is he a known presence in town, he’s also on state records. His easy, relaxed manner is in contrast to the fearful Dena. Thus the team’s ineptitude and mutual distrust is depicted before the mission is underway.
Night Moves is the name of the boat, but describes the surreptitious movements of the group, their hidden agendas and their subterfuge. And when a lone camper dies in the explosion, the impact of what they have done adds flame to the fire of the group’s original distrust and paranoia. Dena, in particular, finds it hard to come to terms with her actions. She disappears from the screen for a while but her presence is felt as she starts calling Harmon, who in turn calls Josh and all their rules are broken.
Reichardt’s film gives an insight into the lives of the eco-friendly residents of southern Oregon, their commitment to the land and its safeguarding. Josh lives on a commual farm, his dwelling a yurt, whilst Dena works in a well-being centre for women. On the farm, there is a discussion about the bombing, the group unaware of Josh’s involvement, and he realises that his action has probably not only been futile but against what many of his peer group believe in.
There is also a nice scene of Josh at a party, the contemporary American version of a barn dance, all hay bales and local brew. The three leads are all strong, Sarsgard almost unrecognisable in his hippy garb. The film is a reflection on how good intentions can lead to very bad results, of how people with a sense of morality can commit the most heinous of crimes. This is a small budget film but it deals with very big issues imaginatively and intelligently.