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Movie review: 'Night Moves' a tight thriller with a slow fuse

Published June 13, 2014 4:39 pm

Review • Tension builds organically in eco-terrorism story.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The thriller "Night Moves" twists the dials on the audience's nervous system slowly, and with such finesse and care, that you might not notice how deeply your fingernails are buried into the armrests until it's over.

The story begins with two college-age kids, Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) and Dena (Dakota Fanning), walking around a hydroelectric dam on an Oregon river. Their conversation slowly reveals that they aren't idly exploring — they're casing the place.

Josh lives on an organic farm, where he works growing vegetables and selling them at the farmers market. Dena works at a day spa, but spends her nights in environmental study groups. Both are convinced that the planet's in trouble, and they want to do more than talk about it. They plan to blow up the dam.

Director Kelly Reichardt, co-writing with Jon Raymond, painstakingly depicts the details of their plan. They buy a boat. They enlist Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), a mountain recluse who trained as a Marine. They buy 500 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer after Dena fast-talks a feedlot salesman (James LeGros) who's reluctant to sell it to her. And so on.

At each step, the anxiety rises among the three would-be eco-terrorists. In the lead-up, and particularly in the aftermath, each wonders whether the others will crack — and all three tie themselves up in knots of fear that the police are getting closer.

Reichardt, as she did with the homeless drama "Wendy & Lucy" or the pioneer trek "Meek's Cutoff," works brilliantly in cramped quarters. Her approach is minimalist, nothing extravagant or splashy, just a tight focus on her characters and their psychological states. She also lets scenes play out, building tension gradually but inexorably.

Such a strategy relies on the actors, and Reichardt has attracted a strong cast. Eisenberg's furtive intelligence and Sarsgaard's veiled intensity are known quantities, deployed well here. The wild card is Fanning, and she proves herself up to the challenge portraying a young woman whose naive activism leads her to taking action and dealing with the grave ramifications.

Reichardt neither glorifies nor condemns the characters' actions. She doesn't have to. She needs only present a powerful scenario, something that could be happening somewhere in America this very minute, and lets us consider the consequences. The result is a movie as smart as it assumes its audience is.

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'Night Moves'

Budding eco-terrorists plot a major action in this nail-biter of a thriller.

Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas.

When • Opens Friday, June 13.

Rating • R for some language and nudity.

Running time • 112 minutes.