Here, the planet is dying—not apocalyptically, but golf course by clear-cut mountainside. The film’s Oregon looks just like the actual Oregon, but, instead of ignoring the signs like the most of us, the film’s young protagonists register each depredation on the trajectory toward ecological disaster. Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), who lives in a handsome yurt on the communal farm where he labors, silently grieves for the natural world. He barely speaks to other people. Dena (Dakota Fanning), a therapeutic masseuse at a New Age spa and member of the farm’s extended network, lucidly quotes the statistics and chafes to do something.
Having previously worked together on smaller actions unwittingly bankrolled by her wealthy family, Dena and Josh now conspire to explode a dam that is destroying a river valley east of Portland. Josh believes that this event will make people think, bring them to their senses. What Dena hopes to accomplish is not clear, but in the face of the facts she cannot do nothing.
The two hook up with a third party, Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard, perfectly typecast), an ex-con living in a trailer in the woods and working at one of those golf courses. Older, cooler, and craftier than the others, he loves the land without signing up for any utopian programs. He can live with moral contradictions.
The plan is to load a motorboat with sodium nitrate fertilizer and a timer, stake it to the dam under cover of night, row to safety, and avoid contact with each other for the foreseeable future. After an increasingly breathless series of crises—the feed store will not sell Dena the fertilizer without a Social Security card, a fellow ex-con IDs Harmon at a breakfast joint, a tourist stops to repair a flat on the road above the dam just as the saboteurs start the timer—the deed is done.
This is hardly the climax of the film, however, but merely the catalyst for its real conflict. In true Hitchcockian fashion, the perpetrators show up for work the next day to hear that a camper has been killed in the incident. If they are caught, they will go to jail for life. If they are not caught, they will live with a murder on their conscience, a heavy secret for the young idealists Josh and Dena. They can pull off the crime, but can they handle the subsequent tension? Can they trust each other not to crack?
Reichardt creates complex female characters on difficult journeys, such as the vagabond on her way to Alaska in Wendy and Lucy and the pioneer Emily Tetherow in Meek’s Cutoff (both played by Michelle Williams). While Josh is the main protagonist of Night Moves, Dena’s character depicts the plight of a smart young woman in post-feminist America.
When we first see Josh and Dena, scoping out the dam, we notice that her jeans are tighter than his and that she plays with her hair, the telltale marks of female redundancy beside the self-sufficient male. When she tries to make conversation with her tightly-wound, barely civil accomplice or prepares sandwiches for the team before the big action, she is doing women’s work. When she asserts herself in a disagreement with the condescending Harmon, Josh barks at her to shut up. No matter how keenly competent she is, she will always be a tagalong. What does she have to do to prove herself, blow up a dam?