Tipping Point Productions
May 30, 2014 10:19 AM EDT

The American left is in shambles. Occupy Wall Street was a Renaissance fair, grabbing headlines in 2009 but producing zero practical impact. It’s the Tea Party, founded the same year, that got things done, by pushing mainstream politics ever rightward. Since then, liberals haven’t championed progressive goals so much as they’ve desperately tried to retain policies in place in the 1970s — Social Security, abortion rights, an equitable income tax system, regulations of industry and financial malfeasance — while defending their Commander-in-Chief.

So what meaningful action is left for the left? The eco-radicals in Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves have a golden oldie of an idea: Blow something up — in this case, Oregon’s hydroelectric Green Peter Dam.

It’s odd to think of Reichardt making a political thriller. The style of this distinguished indie filmmaker, in Wendy and Lucy and the Western-pioneer drama Meek’s Cutoff, is meticulous, inferential, soft-spoken to the point of muteness. Instead of pounding her viewers with choleric imagery, she demands their collaboration in filling in narrative holes, completing the story.

(READ: Mary Pols on Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff)

Reichardt’s new picture has the same slow pulse, but the topic that she and co-screenwriter Jon Raymond have chosen — the planning and execution of a violent act in the name of green justice — is so sensational that it builds tension from the outset. It makes Night Moves less an art film than a real movie, a Bonnie and Clyde for the disaffected Left.

Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), a city boy who lives on an organic farm commune, watches a leftie documentary about our threatened planet — “How long will it be until humanity understands that everything is interrelated?” — and listens skeptically to its director, who says, “I’m focused on small plans, a lot of small plans.” Josh is focused on a big, noisy plan. He has joined young Dena (Dakota Fanning) and an older explosives expert named Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) in the dam scheme. The three don’t waste time debating morality; they’re beyond wrestling with their consciences, agreeing that, as Harmon says, “God knows that dam wants to come down.”

(READ: Still no equality for women directors)

Reichardt and Raymond give their story the “tent” structure of movie epics like Lawrence of Arabia: the first half leading up to a daring military operation, the second half trailing down in division and disappointment. To get to the dam and blow it up, the three need a boat and 500 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer. Because she has a gift for playing the part of a sweet young thing, Dana gets the job of wooing a boat owner (Matt Malloy), eager to make the sale, and a fertilizer salesman (James LeGros) who, from either suspicion or ordinary orneriness, demands to see her Social Security card. (Who carries that around?) Proceeding like a heist movie, Night Moves invests enough interest in the perps that the spectator roots for them to pull off their big score. They can pay for it later.

(READ: Corliss on David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia)

You could say the operation was a success but the patient died. I won’t, not wanting to give away too much about what happens next. But the political fallout is inevitable, as Josh’s fellow communers express no satisfaction in hearing of the bombing: “One dam. Who cares? That river has 10 dams on it,” And “You don’t call that results?” “I call that theater.” The central trio, for whom paranoia is only prudent (“That’s good you’re paranoid,” Harmon tells Josh, “healthier in the long run”), naturally begins to suspect one another. As the law closes in, thieves fall out: that’s the rule of classic heist movies like Jules Dassin’s Rififi, and of a threesome that had little connection before they formed their intimate conspiracy.

(READ: A tribute to Jules Dassin, Master of the Heist)

Looking like Drew Barrymore drained of color and verve, former child star Fanning provides the fulcrum on which Night Moves pivots: an activist turned ethicist. Sarsgaard is more genial, a handyman with explosives who is willing to blow up a dam to protect endangered salmon but also goes trout-fishing because, “All I know is, they’re fun to catch.” Viewers initially frustrated by the lack of information in the dialogue will get all they need from scanning the actors’ taut or grieving faces, which gradually reveal all motives and feelings, as Jeff Grace’s spare score subtly ups the anxiety level to match the characters’.

Eisenberg, who as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network established his screen character as the impatient misfit always too smart for the room, spends the first half of Night Moves speaking barely at all. His Josh acts from desperation, not hope. His disillusion has ground him into a series of silent frowns, as if he’s having an angry conversation with himself, or harboring righteous deadly intent. After the explosion, Josh feels threatened by every glance from a passing hippie, every pair of headlights in the rearview mirror. He’s a Dostoevskyan hero-victim, like the one Eisenberg played earlier this month in The Double, his apprehensions screaming in his skull. Josh’s ideals have become his addiction; his righteousness could twist him into a killer.

(READ: Corliss on Jesse Eisenberg in The Double)

The film’s story has an echo in the 1970 bombing of the University of Wisconsin’s Sterling Hall, a radical protest against the Vietnam War that accidentally killed one professor. That tragedy is remembered and grieved today, while current, more systemic acts of violence, like the defects in General Motors cars that killed at least 13 and possibly hundreds of drivers, get reported and fade into the right’s clamor about Obama and Hillary.

Glancing back at the radical, sometimes fatal activities of the Weather Underground more than 40 years ago, Night Moves is almost political science fiction today. Who are these people, ready to back their principles with 500 founds of fertilizer? And does the radical American left even exist?

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