Dam-age: Environmental activists are in over their heads in Kelly Reichardt’s ‘Night Moves’

Beginning with her third feature, 2006's Old Joy, Kelly Reichardt has emerged as one of the Pacific Northwest's preeminent landscape artists. Armed with a film camera—as opposed to a painter's palette—the Florida-born director has spend the past eight years traversing the state of Oregon, capturing its diverse environments in a series of beautifully composed images, from the dense mountain forests in Old Joy, to the low-rise urban sprawl in Wendy and Lucy, to the flat, water-starved plains that stretch out endlessly into the horizon in Meek's Cutoff.

As richly drawn as these backdrops are, though, it's the careful attention that Reichardt pays to the characters in the foreground that adds another layer to the frame and pushes her films beyond mere travelogue. Her camera regards her human subjects with the same unobtrusive eye that it trains on the world around them, seeking to record their behavior in the moment rather than in obviously pre-scripted dramatic incidents. Whether Reichardt is following a young woman trying to scrape up enough cash to recover her impounded dog or a wagon train of pioneers braving the elements along the Oregon Trail, she's drawn to the process by which they solve (or, in some cases, don't solve) the problems confronting them, rather than skipping ahead to the consequences of their choices. Or, as the director herself succinctly puts it, "I like watching people do stuff," before going on to add, "These films are all character studies, really, but I think you can only figure out your characters if you can also figure out the world they live in. So as big a part as the landscapes play, these stories are just as much about the characters. It's hard to separate the two things."

Reichardt is ruminating on the divide—or lack thereof—between her characters and their environments in a restaurant on New York's Lower East Side, across the country from the state that has served as her filmmaking base for almost a decade. (New York is hardly foreign territory for her, though; despite shooting her films in Oregon, she's a resident of the Empire State and commutes to work via regular cross-country drives.) Across the street, her latest film, Night Moves, is unspooling for a matinee crowd at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival and she'll be making an appearance afterwards for a Q&A. Given the movie's storyline—which involves a trio of environmental activists who take their passion for defending the Earth a bit too far by organizing a mission to blow up a dam—she's already expecting to hear one oft-asked question tossed back at her. "There's always the 20-year-old girl who stands up and says, 'How can you show these environmental activists as anything besides good? They've never hurt anybody!'" Reichardt says, wryly. "It's like it's off-limits to write a character [that's different from that]. But I kind of understand—environmentalists are up against it. They're considered the extremists when the most extreme things that are happening [in our country] are completely legal. I'm as mad, anxious and frustrated as anyone about the lack of action towards the environment and the [disregard] for preserving life and species beyond ourselves. Still, we wanted to make a film that offered different points of view and posed the question, ‘If this isn't the right thing, then what is the right thing?’”

The seeds for Night Moves—opening May 30 from Cinedigm—were initially planted by Reichardt's longtime collaborator (and full-time Oregon citizen), writer Jonathan Raymond, who grew fascinated with his home state's eco-political scene after spending time with friends who own and operate a sustainable cooperative farm. "Originally, John had written a love story that took place on the farm and involved someone hiding out after having committed some kind of [violent] action," she remembers. "It took place in one setting and had a lot of dialogue, so it wasn't really my thing. But I was interested in the process of showing what had come before that action. My dad was on the bomb squad for 20 years in Miami and there used to be this book in our house when I was growing up, How to Build a Bomb."

Abandoning the love-story angle, Raymond and Reichardt used the setting of a cooperative Oregon farm and the region's eco-activist culture as a jumping-off point for another one of their patented character studies that double as portraits of a specific process. In the film, the ringleader of the potentially explosive operation is Josh Stamos (Jesse Eisenberg), a committed environmentalist who isn't necessarily the most socially well-adjusted individual. Joining him are hardware guy Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) and new-activist-on-the-block Dena (Dakota Fanning), the daughter of a wealthy East Coast family who is using her parents' money to fund this mission, rather than another semester at the college she dropped out of to pursue her "Save the World" agenda.

"She's got a little bit of a Patty Hearst thing in her," Reichardt says of Dena. "When you're young, your politics can be wrapped up—maybe to a confusing degree—in your anger towards your parents. So your parents' politics are the opposite of what yours would be, and maybe over time it becomes less to do with them and you end up having the right position. Dena spends a lot of the film trying to convince herself that she's not just the money—she's truly a part of it. And, as it turns out, she is truly a part of it and that's kind of the sad thing."

Now college-aged herself, former child actress Fanning campaigned strongly for the role, overcoming Reichardt's initial concerns that she was still too young. "I feel really fortunate with the cast. Jesse's not someone I would have imagined right off the bat and even Peter is different from how we imagined the character in the script. But you really have to find people that are game for the way we make movies. We don't have a lot of time and the films are so physical—there are so many physical things the actors have to be doing that dictate how they're performing. Like in Meek's Cutoff, the actresses had bonnets on, so they had no peripheral vision and couldn't really hear. And in Night Moves, Jesse really is driving a truck through these old, dark mountains. So you can't be in your head about anything—you have to be paying attention. Some actors are really into it and some wouldn't be, so you have to figure out how people will be on- and off-camera in these situations. In this case, the actors were very down with it, which was cool."

Though Night Moves is resolutely process-oriented, simply by virtue of the fact that its narrative is based around a clandestine mission that involves a literal ticking time bomb, it's arguably the closest that Reichardt has come to making a genre film—i.e., a thriller. It certainly features more traditional genre elements than, say, Meek's Cutoff, which had period western trappings but otherwise departed from the period western template both aesthetically and narratively.

"I'm aware of genre, of course, and there are times when you tip your hat to it," Reichardt explains. "The thing about a genre is that there are certain expectations the audience has—whether they're aware of them or not—that certain things should come at certain times. And sometimes not always delivering on those expectations in a given moment can create a tension that you can work with. You can shake up the mix and make them realize how used to that ride they are and how interesting it can be if that itch doesn't get scratched. In a way, people are more comfortable with an explosion every ten seconds. It's really the ten minutes of quiet that will make people the most anxious, because you're not feeding the beast." (Reichardt does admit that, in the editing room, she cut a version of one key sequence that played like a scene from a more classically Hollywood thriller. "I asked myself, 'What would the Coen Brothers do?'" she says, laughing. "I knew I wouldn't be able to keep that version in the final cut, but it was fun to build and be like, 'Wow, if I weren't such a rule-follower, I could do this.'")

Whether or not Night Moves qualifies as Reichardt's first genre film, it is, more significantly, likely to be her last Oregon-set feature, at least for now. Though the director blanches at the suggestion of shooting in the urban wilds of New York City, she is nurturing an idea that she says will take her to a new environment, preferably one that's off the grid. "I really like locations that are hard to get to, so nobody knows what you're doing and nobody comes and visits. There are no friends on our sets, no agents and hopefully no phone reception, which is getting harder and harder. We're in our own little world—it's like camping."

But just because she's planning to explore new terrain, don't expect her own particular process to change. "For John and I, it always starts with a place. Then, when it gets down to it, we want to ask, 'What would these people do?' We try to come up with backgrounds for the characters and make them as complete as we can—even though that information won't go into the movie—just so we can ask ourselves the question: What would they do and how would they respond to that situation? One of the things I learned while making Meek's Cutoff is that we'd have these historians with us and whenever we'd arrive at a situation where we'd ask them, 'What would the characters do?' they'd come back at us with 'Well, you have the same tools and you're in the same situation—what would you do? They're just people.'"