As Josh, the protagonist of Kelly Reichardt’s tense, crawly eco-activist thriller Night Moves, Jesse Eisenberg makes his eyes so tiny that they almost disappear under his caveman brow; he’s brusque, furtive, and paranoid even before the tragedy that drives him around the bend. He’s a big jump up the evolutionary ladder from the Santa Barbara murderer Elliot Rodgers, but on the same violently anthropophobic continuum. He’s such a seething, humorless prick that it almost doesn’t matter that the ideals he spouts are so high.
Josh is Reichardt and co-writer Jonathan Raymond’s spokesman for the radical wing of the environmental movement, often associated with Earth First!: He holds forth in an angry but toneless voice about the “ticking time bomb of industrialization” and the arrogance of building golf courses all over the high desert, where there’s no water. (Would he approve of them if there were?) His words sound reasonable — at least to me — but then, so do the feminist shibboleths in the mouth of Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction: It’s the context that makes them batshit crazy. He has no doubt that blowing up a major dam is the right thing to do, so he joins forces with a rich young woman, Dena (Dakota Fanning), and a secretive ex-marine, Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), to acquire the materials, among them a thousand pounds of fertilizer and a motorboat to carry it all to the dam. The boat they use is called Night Moves.
If Reichardt and Raymond have a position on the imminent perils of climate change, they keep it to themselves. Their focus is on how it all gets ugly. The characters aren’t especially likable — Josh is a nut, Dena a naïf, and Harmon a sleaze — but Reichardt apes Hitchcock: She puts us on Josh’s (and occasionally Dena’s) side the way Hitchcock puts us on Norman Bates’s when Marion Crane’s car bobs up and down without sinking and we’re suddenly afraid he’ll get caught. Every transaction is gruelingly drawn out, every passerby a potential informant or government agent. A salesman (James LeGros) studies Dena hard when she asks to buy fertilizer. A man in a campground strikes up a casual conversation, and the more banal it gets, the more unnerving. A man whose car is where it shouldn’t be changes a tire as the clock ticks down and the bombers stare in dreadful silence: Move. Move. Move, goddamn you. The slow-motion suspense is terrific.
Night Moves infects you with its mood. Even the annoying non-ending works: When I left the theater I still felt complicit — I had to remind myself that I wasn’t on the run from the cops. Whether the film is much more than an exercise, though, is open to debate. Fanning is funny and then pitiable as the all-too-human Dina, and Sarsgaard does a fine job making Harmon a man without a core — you’re not even sure his name is Harmon. But despite Eisenberg’s vivid performance, the character of Josh doesn’t have the stature to carry the story or the theme. And he’s certainly not a worthy vehicle for exploring the ways in which climate change is ripping the fabric of our daily lives. The movie is a cunning piece of storytelling, but it’s thin.