Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) is a man with a plan, but cannot work alone, even if in the long run it would have been better if he did. He believes wholeheartedly in environmentalism and would go to drastic lengths to protect the planet he regards as more important than any individual, unless that individual shares his views on direct action. His friend Dena (Dakota Fanning) has been brought into his radicalism, and she has offered to help as she too doesn't wish to listen to the meek opinions of those who would have it that the world is not saved by grand gestures but a collection of smaller projects, and so with the help of the older radical Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) they are about to change the planet...
Or one part of the planet, specifically their small sphere of relationships, as well as the larger matter of blowing up a dam in the middle of an Oregon forest in director Kelly Reichardt's cautionary tale of what happens when the tenets you live by blind yourself to common sense and further than that, any sort of moral code that would have offered you some perspective, one which might have you observe you're a hypocrite if you claim to be working for the greater good when your actions cause destruction and even death, especially when you attribute those characteristics to your perceived enemies. Though it was not a film about the brand of terrorism most were worried about come the twenty-first century, it nevertheless found a universal message there.
That was more than "thou shalt not kill", though admittedly this was a major part of what the trio of environmentalists ignore when their obsession with their personal mission drowns out all reason, mostly because there is nobody in their lives they will listen to who would offer a counterargument to their actions of potential violence. That's as much a tragedy as what eventually happens, that there was no voice here they could take heed of - there was, but they chose to dismiss it since they believed in their delusions that this would be a sign of weakness. And so the tone of the story moves from responsibility - for being true to yourself and all you hold dear, and the planet's overall health - to guilt - when you realise what a fool you have been thanks to your lack of proportion - to finally abject paranoia.
Those points in that progression may not necessarily arrange themselves in that order for every misguided soul, but Reichardt found them the most powerful with such a sequence. Not that everyone found this impressive, as her slow, deliberate pace all the better to spell out the implications of what occurs was likely to turn off those expecting a high octane thriller for this material could have easily been adapted. In its way, Night Moves, not to be confused with the cult Gene Hackman thriller of the nineteen-seventies, though there were curious similarities in tone and structure, intentionally or otherwise, represented the dark side of another cult artifact of that decade forty years before, Edward Abbey's novel The Monkey Wrench Gang. There, the radical environmentalism was a lark.
A dangerous lark, but one summing up the counterculture mood of the era it was written, yet come the next millennium we could no longer rely on that sort of cut and dried, goodies versus baddies point of view since everything had gotten a lot more complicated. How to combat extremism when your neighbour could be the one with the crazy views, and more worryingly, the wherewithal to put them into force? The central trio here do not look like refugees from a Mad Max movie, they look perfectly normal yet here they are harbouring a mindset which will by and by see a lot of damage and loss of life. Eisenberg in particular was conveying a concealed rage you could just about detect, something easily mistaken for icy grumpiness at the modern malaise, yet in effect far more corrosive than that. When Dena begins to regret her behaviour, he cannot agree, in spite of their actions proving utterly futile as life goes on much as it had in the bigger picture, another warning for those who try to change the world then are written off as maniacs. Appropriately eerie music by Jeff Grace.
[Soda Pictures' Blu-ray looks crepuscular, as befits the cinematography, with such features as interviews with Reichardt and Eisenberg among the extensive extras.]