Rewind, Review, and Re-Rate: ‘Night Moves’: Trying to Make Some Front-Page Eco-Terrorism News

By Mark Jackson
Mark Jackson
Mark Jackson
Film Critic
Mark Jackson is the senior film critic for The Epoch Times. His professors all recommended he write professionally. He became a professional actor instead. Now he writes professionally about acting. In the movies.
June 25, 2021 Updated: June 26, 2021

Pre-rap Nuyorican (New York-born Puerto Rican) poet Gil Scott Heron said in 1971, “The Revolution will not be televised.” The fact that current “revolutions” arrive largely via social media rather than mainstream media prove Heron a minor urban prophet. What he didn’t see coming was that all that revolution was going to end up putting America on the brink of communism.

Kelly Reichardt’s 2013 eco-terrorist thriller, “Night Moves,” takes a look at some eco-revolutionary issues and terrorist tactics, and raises some questions. It’s almost a blueprint for young eco-terrorists everywhere, and the message is: Think small.

What Shall We Blow Up?

a dam's sluice gate in Night Moves
The sluice gate of Oregon’s Green Peter hydroelectric dam in “Night Moves.” (Cinedigm/Tipping Point Productions)

Redheaded Dena (Dakota Fanning) and sensitive Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) nose around the massive, hydroelectric Green Peter Dam sluice gate in Oregon. She notes that there are no fish ladders. Dena’s a Connecticut-to-Pacific-Northwest refugee Trustafarian (a trust-fund kid who can afford to hang out on a Costa Rican beach, surf, smoke weed, wear blond dreadlocks, and pretend to be a Rastafarian—or run off and join the eco-terrorist movement, or Antifa, and so on). She works at a nature spa with wafting sauna steam and Indian flute music.

woman holds crystal in Night Moves
Dakota Fanning in “Night Moves.” (Cinedigm/Tipping Point Productions)

Josh is hired help at an organic farm. He’s a specific type of shrilly, moralizing, hypersensitive modern soft male; he puts bird nests back in trees with much agonizing, society-blaming, and verbal virtue-signaling. He also says (of the dam), “It’s killing all the salmon, so we can run our iPods.”

a man sorting vegetables in a boat in Night Moves
Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) works his side gig at an organic farm, in “Night Moves.” (Cinedigm/Tipping Point Productions)

Then, Josh and Dena attend a documentary screening. In the Q&A, the filmmaker hails a green revolution. “What do you think we should do?” asks a student. The filmmaker replies, “One big thing is not good. Lots of little things are good.”

filmmakers in front of a crowd in Night Moves
A post-documentary screening Q&A, where the filmmaker calls for a green revolution that consists of lots of little eco-terrorist attacks, in “Night Moves.” (Cinedigm/Tipping Point Productions)

Oklahoma City Redux

But our two eco-warriors are clearly already up to something big. They meet up with Harmon, Josh’s activist buddy (Peter Sarsgaard at his edgy best in full-beard mode). Harmon is an ex-Marine and apparently an explosives expert. The dam keeps coming up in conversations.

two men and a woman at a picnic table in Night Moves
(L–R) Dakota Fanning, Jesse Eisenberg, and Peter Sarsgaard play a trio of eco-terrorists in “Night Moves.” (Cinedigm/ Tipping Point Productions)

Dena trust-fund bankrolls a $10,000 used speedboat. They trade 20-something Pacific Northwest eco-hippie revolutionary gossip: “Last I heard, Randy was squatting in Eagle Creek.” Dena waxes academic, stating that once the marine biodiversity goes, everything goes. They talk about the hydro dam: “Twenty-nine golf courses have sprung up in the high plains desert. Where’s the water coming from?”

two men and a woman in a truck in Night Moves
(L–R) Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, and Peter Sarsgaard play eco-terrorists in “Night Moves.” (Cinedigm/Tipping Point Productions)

Harmon speaks in the unctuous, sensual way of Gaia activists (with prior arrests). He paints the dam as a woman: “All that water pushing up against her walls, she wants to let go, but we need to help her.” There’s a pattern of anthropomorphizing man-made objects and being suspicious of them having ill intent toward nature.

It turns out that Harmon’s stockpiled a thousand pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer. They need 500 more to have some fun fireworks festivities. Problem is, if you order any amount over 10 pounds, this controlled substance sends up red flags to law enforcement.

Dena goes in the feed store, lays down an Oscar-worthy eco-improv, bamboozles the desk clerk, and bags bomb ingredients. They head home to jettison the boat seats and “stuff the turkey.”

two men and a woman in a boat in Night Moves
(L–R) Dakota Fanning, Jesse Eisenberg, and Peter Sarsgaard up to no good in “Night Moves.” (Cinedigm/Tipping Point Productions)

It’s camping time, or rather, hanging around the campground picnic table looking like you’re camping, until night falls. Under cover of darkness, they take off across the camp lake. Pulling alongside the dam, Dena anchors the boat to it with an explosive, powder-actuated drill. Harmon wires the boat-bomb. Just as they’re about to high-tail it out of there, a car pulls up on the far bank. Dena says, “That’s not a good spot.” Will everyone make it out alive?

two men and a woman at a picnic table in Night Moves
(L–R) Dakota Fanning, Jesse Eisenberg, and Peter Sarsgaard play a trio of eco-terrorists in “Night Moves.” (Courtesy of Cinedigm/ Tipping Point Productions)

The local papers run the dam story; farmers talk. Dena breaks the agreed radio silence, wanting to know if Josh has seen a website for a missing Oregon airplane mechanic who was camping out on the river that night. All his friends, children, and mother are posting.

Dena’s got hives. She’s looking dangerously close to spilling the beans. Harmon thinks jail doesn’t sound too good. It’s life, plus 300 years.

man and woman in a truck in Night Moves
Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) suspects Dena (Dakota Fanning) of caving in to the stressful aftermath of their badly planned act of terrorism, in “Night Moves.” (Cinedigm/Tipping Point Productions)

Overview

This subject matter was pretty cutting-edge in 2013. Mark Ruffalo, Sean Lennon, and Yoko Ono were all protesting fracking. Things fall apart, the center does not hold, and that giant sucking sound is planet Earth’s vanishing resources. Therefore, this should be gripping and dramatic stuff, but mostly it isn’t.

Generally, the film is too slow-moving. The music’s melancholy, echoey, like lake ripples, with sad piano chords. It’s appropriate, but it would have been nice to counter the overcast Oregon landscapes with some crackling dramatic tension. Sarsgaard brings that, Fanning a bit less so, Eisenberg not at all.

Unfortunately, while Eisenberg looks the part of a disgruntled eco-subversive, he possesses no deep-dug, tree-hugger taproot of dramatic power to be convincingly attention-grabbing—he just looks mildly disturbed. Sighs a bit. You just don’t care enough about him one way or another.

man with jacket in the woods in Night Moves
Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) is a young man who feels he is on a mission to bring change to the world, in “Night Moves.” (Cinedigm/Tipping Point Productions)

The film does bring up a good point. Sometimes, those caring about roadkill deer enough to dynamite a dam are self-righteous and zealous to the point of strangely lacking compassion for fellow humans.

“Night Moves” clearly shows the dangers of youthful idealists trying their hand at revolution. When walking the walk results in a foot getting blown off by an improvised explosive device, there’s immediate PTSD and the realization that one is not a real warrior. The movie spotlights the overly passionate, not-well-thought-through, roiling fanaticism that pervades much of modern revolution.

But is it perhaps also something else? Is it a call out for real eco-warriors to man up? One gets the distinct feeling that the filmmakers support anti-corporation and pro-environment ideology. The Oregon area in which the film is set is rife with organic farming communities, and 1960s-style back-to-the-land and off-the-grid neo-hippies, anarchists, radicals, and activists. Was “Night Moves” a subversive call to arms?

Unlikely. Reichardt’s films tend to simply focus on characters living in the margins of society, in search of a better quality of life and place in the world. She is interested in characters, in her own words for a New York Times Magazine article, “who don’t have a net, who if you sneezed on them, their world would fall apart.”

In the end, “Night Moves” teaches our revolutionary-minded youth not to go big and hurt humans while trying to make some (as Bob Seger said) “front-page drive-in news.” It warns to not be Timothy McVeigh. It advises to go small. And what’s that mean? It’s probably as simple as, instead of blowing dams, just “be the change you want to see in the world.”

two men and a woman in a canoe near a dam in Night Movies
Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), Dena (Dakota Fanning), and Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) in a canoe, leaving the scene of a soon-to-be boat-bomb crime in “Night Moves.” (Cinedigm/Tipping Point Productions)

‘Night Moves’ 
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard
Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes
Rated R
Release date: May 30, 2014
Rating: 3 stars out of 5

Mark Jackson is the senior film critic for The Epoch Times. Mark has 20 years’ experience as a professional New York actor, classical theater training, and a BA in philosophy. He recently narrated the Epoch Times audiobook “How the Specter of Communism is Ruling Our World,” and has a Rotten Tomatoes author page.

Mark Jackson
Mark Jackson
Film Critic
Mark Jackson is the senior film critic for The Epoch Times. His professors all recommended he write professionally. He became a professional actor instead. Now he writes professionally about acting. In the movies.