I watched Night Moves as both a film geek, who’s a fan of Kelly Reichardt’s work – as well as someone with some experience in revolution – in my case, participation in the anti-Apartheid struggle.
Night Moves is a wondrously sly magic trick. The film story is deceptively simple. Three characters, in order to effect change, decide to blow up a dam – as we discover along the way to ‘save some salmon.’ That’s roughly it. The remainder of the narrative details what happens to the various participants. It’s telling that Night Moves got a minimal release, and online reviews are sparse for this film. I think partly because of what it conveys, but also perhaps because of the likely inability of the broader public to comprehend much of the film. This is not to say the film story is convoluted, or that its narrative is complicated – far from it – this is deceptively mainstream style story telling. Everything is visible. And herein lies the fun of it.
Kelly R ‘s directorial camera eye is remorseless and inscrutable – it’s reminiscent of the documentary-maker Frederick Wiseman in the way it simply observes without comment, without a voice over to explain or frame how you ‘should’ view what you are seeing. And, just like in all of Wiseman’s (often immensely long) films, the subjects on display are eventually judged by their own words, silences, and actions as the viewer observes them.
The Devil is always in the details. The subjects of Night Moves feel they have to ‘do something’ to effect change. Is it for something earth-shattering? No. As one character remarks (and I’m paraphrasing) ‘It’s to help salmon swim upstream.’ But the director clearly has bigger fish to fry. A portion of what passes for the ‘progressive’ elements of US society comes repeatedly under the camera’s eye. We see a group of alleged activists watching the tail end of a film, in this case its about ‘the environment.’ It’s the common form of American documentary – superficial and culminating in platitudes and naïve ‘up beat’ hopeful ending. After all, that’s what people want: happy endings. Our characters sit amidst the audience, stony faced. The film maker of the documentary is asked what people are supposed to ‘do’ to rectify the issues raised. Nothing useful is proposed.
The silence and inscrutability of our main characters speaks volumes during this exchange.
They’re intending to do something.
Yet despite a professed love of the environment, it’s chilling to observe how lifeless and superficial almost all the main protagonists are. At casual glance, it may appear to be a ‘firm resolve’ – but the continuing silences, the absence of warmth or even sardonic humor demonstrate a deeper crippling of not just these individuals, but uniformly all the people we come into contact with.
There’s the male teenager who walks amidst nature, contemplatively eying trees – on a surface level, one might be supposed to think that the director wishes us to think this indicates his ‘love of nature.’ Yet he rivals Buster Keaton in po-faced dead-pan as he strolls. He is already so divorced from nature – and himself – that he is unable to even express pleasure amidst something he professes to care for or appreciate. He is psychological stunted.
The female lead, in turn, is revealed to have equivalent flaws, causing problems further down the line for the group. ‘Rich parents’ sneers the third participant in private, when it’s mentioned that the woman was able to furnish the needed wad of money in order to enable their attack. Even amidst attempting what they believe to be a revolutionary act, the group displays its fundamental blind spot: they are fatally flawed and divided on multiple fronts, hamstrung by their inability to perceptually grasp the larger reality in which they find themselves.
Not that the third participant is untouched – he seems almost proud of having received demolitions training in the military. He’s also served time in jail, and appears unable to comprehend why this ‘might’ be something of a problem when preparing a guerilla attack and avoiding the resulting dragnet. This scene is one of the few times the individuals appear to display emotion – interestingly, it’s out of self-preservation. Laughter only emerges from the group after a socially awkward moment, when an unsuspecting person happens by in the final stages of preparation. The group are so dislocated they’re unable to ‘socially engineer’ the moment, and instead rely on an extended pause until the unwanted visitor gets the message and leaves. Laughter.
There was an interesting neurological experiment done many years ago, where participants were given spectacles to wear 24/7 that reversed ‘up’ and ‘down’ for them. Naturally, this insane viewpoint of the world was disturbing to the test subject’s brains. It took as much as a week in some instances, but all the subject’s brains kicked in to ‘rectify’ the artificially created problem, and reversed the false optical signal coming in. Things then got really interesting once this had been achieved, and the researchers removed the participants spectacles. Polarity was reversed, and now the humans had to struggle with an ‘upside down’ world being viewed all over again – but without the need for the spectacles – until their brains eventually ‘realized’ the problem, and made the readjustment all over again.
In a political sense, the above experiment on perception is on display throughout the narrative of Night Moves. The attackers are part of and move amidst what mainstream society would probably regard as progressives who have ‘rejected’ the formal capitalist system – the world of collectives who’ve acquired land, and make a living selling products at ‘Farmer’s Markets.’ These folks regard themselves as politically activist: the head of one of the collectives casually boasts that he’s ‘burned his cheese license.’ In other words, revolution has been reduced to the banal act of ‘failing to fill in a required FDA form.’ There is such a skewed perspective on reality, that the man relays this information as if this is a significant act of ‘sticking it to the Man,’ of empowerment, of ‘rebellion.’
Yet after the genuine act of rebellion, when whispers reach the man that one of the attackers is employed by him, he is quick to nervously shoo the accused off his property. ‘You know how long it took for me to build all this up?’ he says worriedly, indicating the farm. Here too, caught up in the webs of the actual enemy, the collective farm is unaware that they have become the enemy themselves: reliant on selling products, in order to survive, they dare not even embrace the (in this) case misguided philosophy of a genuine action – or be seen to endorse any authentic act of revolution, for fear of reprisals.
It’s these touches that make me feel that Night Moves is one of the most politically interesting films I’ve seen in US cinema in recent times. A mirror is being covertly held up to the society itself – and revealing the schizophrenic nature of the existing reality of American life. (But if you’re wearing the ‘wrong’ glasses, you may not necessarily be able to perceptually experience the subtext to begin with.)
On a surface level, in Night Moves, we are seeing a simple story, but in reality, we are observing dual narrative streams, the underlying tale examining some astute and unpleasant political truths. Kelly R’s earlier films are remarkable in of themselves, both for her ability to examine seemingly-simple minutia, and in the process, creating refreshingly luxurious cinema, as well as continually displaying telling points about humankind. In this respect, Kelly R works in a similar fashion to the late Stanley Kubrick, creating stories that, on the surface, appear straightforward but which are operating as a form of encrypted cinematic semiotics.
Think of the uncomfortable moment between two male friends in Old Joy, amidst the literal Eden-like beauty of some hot springs baths – where an affectionate touch is misinterpreted, exposing the reality of the yawning gulf between these two supposed friends, and thus dislocated humanity at large, unable ultimately to express or form any truly meaningful connections. (In that instance, due to societal blueprints of what constitute ‘manhood,’ and all the accompanying fears of appearing ‘weak’ – or homosexual.) As if sexuality ever had anything to do with potential innate strengths or flaws.
Or the main protagonist in Wendy and Lucy, moving through urban desolation, trusting only the love from an animal to be of consequence. Her world is shaken by an act of kindness: a monetary gift from a stranger – the frame fills with her palm showing pitiful small change. We as viewer are uncomfortably aware (or at least, we should be), that it cost us more to buy a ticket to see this film, than what the kindly person has been able to scrape together to help another human being. Or the director’s deliberate (and literal) trudging hell of Meek’s Cutoff, which, it could be argued, operates as a period-piece metaphor for the often misplaced trust that humans have always tended to place in authority.
In any genuinely sophisticated culture, Kelly R’s work would be recognized for the quiet genius it is. Instead, formulaic war-porn, romantic comedies, and other infantile celluloid material abound. It confirms the Third Reich’s Propaganda Minister’s view that that the best propaganda is always escapist fare.
Night Moves effortlessly and expertly brings us to the next veil to be peeled from the delusional upside down world of those educated (for want of a better word – such as ‘indoctrinated’) under tyranny and capitalism: the personal repercussions from being responsible for violence.
In Night Moves, the characters discover they are responsible for a death. This propels us into the third act of the story. On the one hand, the fact that their act of urban guerilla warfare has failed to alter any aspect of the status quo, seems to leave them mostly unaffected. Yet the matter of being responsible for a single death causes a ripple effect, resulting in further fatalities as the characters try to cover their tracks. At last we see some emotion being exhibited, but its both far too late, misplaced, and emerging from the most base of quarters: self-preservation. It’s the careful observation of this that Kelly R’s (passionate) yet dispassionate eye is revealed at its most acute. The inherent psychological damage experienced by all the players is on display.
Unfortunately, much of American norms are not the wholesome thing they appear to be. These supposed ‘activists,’ in essence, misguided politically-stunted walking zombies have been raised in a bloodthirsty, greed-fuelled, militaristic culture, founded on genocide, that – on almost every level – relishes and celebrates violence; yet simultaneously strenuously denies this at every opportunity. Most US born citizens would deny this simple truth most vigorously – just as they have been trained to do from early childhood. Night Moves quietly shows the profound psychological (and political) effects of inflicting these diametrically opposing states on those unfortunate enough to have been raised by American education’s all-encompassing clutches.
Lacking sufficient insight to perceive their reality with perspective, the ‘progressive politicals’ tend to move toward those on or offline societal (or web-based) enclaves still tolerated by a barely-camouflaged tyrannical undemocratic State, to eke out a living, deluding themselves hoping they can ‘make a difference’ – while failing to see they have been co-opted into hanging on to the same Capitalist slippery slope as everyone else.
Characters framed in mirrors have long been used as a metaphor in cinema to imply ‘schizophrenia’ – that catchall phrase medical science chose to encapsulate a range of mental illnesses. Even the final frames of Night Moves very consciously aim the camera (and thus: us) toward the code running smoothly beneath the narrative (a distorted, commonplace ‘security’ mirror, used to provide a useful panoramic view in commercial stores.) Some viewers will look at the reflection provided within the mirror, and attempt to link it to the previous filmic moment – others will perceive the mirror for what it is: a quietly sardonic comment on us, the viewers, as well as a damning indictment of what passes for ‘life’ in modern America.
The film overall is immensely worth seeing.