JFK, Eco-Terrorists, and Judi Dench: The Venice Film Fest's Highs and Lows

Night Moves (Dakota Fanning, Jesse Eisenberg) and Palo Alto (James Franco) made lasting first impressions. John F. Kennedy assassination flick Parkland did not.
AP / Domenico Stinellis

The 70th Venice Film Festival has been underway for days now, and everyone in attendance has a favorite among the movies screened so far.

For me, nothing has toppedNight Moves, Kelly Reichardt’s disquietingly beautiful, deeply intelligent thriller about radical activism and its consequences—both material and moral—in 21st century America.

A high point  of the director’s short, though distinguished filmography, the movie tells the story of three Oregon environmentalists who plot to blow up a hydraulic dam, the emblem of an industrial culture they see as ruining the world.

A Riveting Moral Thriller
The central figure is Josh (Jesse Eisenberg, right), a reserved young man who works on an organic vegetable farm. His partners in protest are Dena (Dakota Fanning), a college dropout from a wealthy family, and Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), a jaded former Marine.

The first half of Night Moves details the trio’s preparation for their mission: the brainstorming, the logistical setbacks and re-adjustments, a bit of bickering, and a hint of a love triangle—though the rigorously melodrama-averse Reichardt wisely never pushes that angle.

Through small, perfectly observed moments, Reichardt (working with screenwriting partner Jon Raymond) suggests that united as they may seem, the main characters have arrived at their extremism from different paths and places: Josh, who rarely thinks out loud or justifies his actions, seems to be the most persuaded of the three; Dena’s anti-establishment, ecologically inclined views may or may not stem from a reflex of rebellion against her privileged upbringing; and Harmon sometimes appears to be torn between revolution and pursuit of pleasure.

In the film’s second half, we see these three commit their act of “eco-terrorism”—and then deal with the aftermath. Reichardt’s characteristically thoughtful, unobtrusive style, a model of visual precision and economy, turns slightly more voluptuous as the story darkens, winding its way through some surprising twists. The final act of Night Moves finds the filmmaker using music, shadow and light, close-ups and atypically dramatic camera angles to gently push the tension to its limits. Meanwhile, images and moments from early in the film—women emerging from a sauna, a shot of Josh’s trembling hands, an encounter with a garrulous hiker—take on new meaning in the closing sequences.

Sarsgaard is terrific, as always, but Night Moves hinges mainly on the other two leads, both superb. Eisenberg usually plays chatty neurotics, but he has a coiled, mysterious quality here; he makes Josh both frightening and fragile. Fanning, who began her career as an eerily self-assured child actress, has mellowed into a distinctive adult screen presence, with slightly smudged-looking features and a soft voice that fools you into thinking she’s barely acting.

Most gratifying of all, though, is the way Night Moves shows Reichardt developing and refining both her craft and her thematic obsessions. Her films have all dealt in some way with Americans struggling against the dominant ethos of their time: Old Joy revolved around the fraying bond between an upwardly mobile thirty-something and his hippie-dippy childhood friend; Wendy and Lucy followed a cash-strapped female drifter whose desperate search for her lost dog gradually reveals just how far outside society she has strayed; and in Meek’s Cutoff, a pioneer woman comes to realize her discomfort with the submissive role imposed on both her and the Native Americans living on the land she and her husband are trying to find and settle.

In Night Moves, Reichardt continues exploring her ideas about the limitations, pressures and dilemmas of American non-conformism. Like most good filmmakers, she discovers more questions than answers. But in the process, she secures her spot as one of the very best US directors working today.

Judi Dench in a Slick Melodrama
The biggest competition crowd-pleaser—the film that generated the most laughter, tears and applause—has been British director Stephen Frears’s Philomena, starring Judi Dench as an Irish woman who enlists former BBC reporter Martin Sixsmith (played by Steve Coogan) to help find her long-lost son.

The film is based on a true story: Philomena Lee was one of many “fallen” Irish women in the 1950s shamed into giving up babies they had out of wedlock to nuns, who, in turn, sold them to wealthy American couples looking to adopt.

Frears gives the story a slick makeover, blending melodrama and comedy with brisk professionalism and a hearty helping of schmaltz. Despite moments of wit (the director wrings odd-couple humor from the relationship between working-class, devoutly Catholic Philomena and posh, cynical atheist Sixsmith), Philomena is essentially a tearjerker, complete with a cloying score from Alexandre Desplat.

Dench and Coogan sell it well, occasionally cutting through the high-minded sentiment to dig up some real emotion. But coming from the director who gave us films like the nimble, imaginative The Queen and the delicious noir The Grifters, this is far from Frears at his best.

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Jon Frosch is a film critic for FRANCE 24 based in Paris. His work has appeared in The New York TimesThe Village Voice, The Hollywood Reporter, and others.

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