Do me a favor and think about a recent time you got together with a friend to hang out. Maybe you went to happy hour, maybe you had dinner; you’re meeting up with someone you likely meet up with often. You shoot the shit, tell jokes, share laughs. Now, think about what you really said to this person while you were with them. You’ve known them for a while, so there was probably no reason to, for example, keep repeating their name back to them. Or recall stories you’ve already told too many times. You don’t need to do these things, because there’s a shorthand to your interactions. An ease that makes hanging out with them enjoyable. If a camera were present to film your time together, what was captured may not make a lot of sense to people who don’t know you. We wouldn’t have any context to help us better understand the familiarity you and your friend have.
While watching her latest (and perhaps best) film, Night Moves, I immediately became enthralled in the manner in which Josh (Jesse Eisenberg, as foreboding and mean as he gets) and Dena (Dakota Fanning, dirty and greasy and brilliant) spoke to one another. There’s a shorthand that makes it clear that they know each other. A shared nervous tension that lets us know conflict will soon unfold. They say little to one another because, at this point, what is there left to say?
Shortly into the film, the two embark on a long drive that could be a perfect opportunity to explain to the audience what the hell is happening. “So, Josh, let’s run through the plan again, okay?” Dena might ask in a lesser film. Instead, they bitch at each other about how long the drive is, arguing how long is long, and the like. One might argue that Reichardt’s films are dominated by these mundane details. That’s fair, but rarely is mundane captured so eloquently.
You’ll have to forgive me. I never take this long to describe what the film is about, but Night Moves is different. Having let the film sit for a few days now, I suppose I’m more interested in how Reichardt chose to execute her story, rather than the story itself, which is, to be clear, consistently interesting. Early in the film, we realize that Josh and Dena are planning to commit a significant crime that supports their cause as environmentalists. They enlist a man named Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard, dangerously blasé) to help, and together, the three finalize their plan for (seemingly) rapid environmental change. There’s far more to the film than just their planning, but revealing more would lessen the appeal.
Every time a new Kelly Reichardt movie comes out (in the past decade she’s released Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff and Night Moves, all to enthusiastic critical praise), detractors cry afoul that the film is too slow, too boring, too mundane. Right, but what if you’re intention is to make a slow film? Slow doesn’t necessarily equate to dull, but rather to a filmmaking style that many may not be used to.
Very few current American filmmakers tell stories the way Kelly Reichardt tells them. In Night Moves, for example, she proves that buying a large amount of fertilizer can be as tense and thrilling as discovering how that fertilizer is eventually used. Reichardt’s films certainly aren’t for everyone, but her unique, subtle, human stories are ones that I find endlessly compelling, no matter how mundane they dare to be. B+