Sunday, September 7, 2014

"As If the Top of My Head Were Taken off"


Kelly Reichardt doesn't make movies.  She makes trances that have characters, plots, settings, and images that somehow culminate into glum, deeply felt, genius poetry.  Night Moves is her newest one, and it has such grace and marble-hard technique you see it in your dreams halfway through seeing it on Pay Per View.  The story is simple:  three loser eco-terrorists blow up a dam in Oregon. That sounds cliché, and yet the movie doesn't have a cliché-bone in its body.  The actors play each part of the triangle with a serious nonchalance, and that triangulation never yields what other movies might make it yield -- no sexual jealousy, no dissolved allegiances, just a sort of raw utilitarian anxious group-think, and also a group-fear that none of them know exactly what or why they are doing what they are doing, outside of following a story they have told themselves since they started being "activists."  I kept thinking of Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment:  the politics aren't the point.  It's the stringy worn-out philosophy that motivates these guys, and that line of thinking is slowly losing its appeal, even while the action, the devastation, heats up. 

Jesse Eisenberg is the central Raskolnikov figure here.  He skulks through the movie with a tentative hatred for the world matched (in his eyes) with a hidden love for its goodness.  In a scene that kicks off the dam-explosion plot, he is driving with Fanning (who plays his sidekick with a sweetly sardonic and yet somehow completely open innocence) to their destination (PeteSarsgaard's grizzled Iraq war vet) when they spot a dead deer at the side of the road.  Eisenberg pulls over and kneels beside the deer, and pronounces that she's still warm, and pregnant.  He says he can feel the baby inside the deer.  It's wet dusk woods here, and the deer is slumped face down.  Eisenberg, at that moment, has the expression of someone trying to figure out how to solve a problem there's no solution to.   That dead pregnant deer is an easy symbol, of course, but you don't know really for what, and it's never given an answer in the rest of the movie.  But still when he pushes the dead deer down the side of a hill, and you hear it slowly slide down the gravel, and then that nothing outside sound of rain dripping off leaves happens, you understand how empty and meaningless this character's life must be, and why he's doing what's he doing, even though he obviously really doesn't.  That is Reichardt's gift as a filmmaker right there:  that slowing down of experience to an essence that doesn't match up to drama, except to create an environment of longing, dread, and exposure.

Reichardt also made Wendy and Lucy a few years back, a beautiful sleek tone-poem with Michelle Williams as a homeless woman who gives up her dog because she can't afford to keep it.  Again a simple concept given a complicated sense of importance.  I sobbed at the end not because of the dog or even because of Williams' performance (although it was genius) -- I cried really hard because Reichardt was able to manufacture a massive echo out of an easy sell:  the emotions felt completely real, not maudlin or even earned, but somehow organic, branded into the very air and light and spaces she filmed.

That same sense of completion haunts Night Moves, that inevitable click that indicates a movie isn't about anything except itself, snapped shut with a purposefulness close to an Emily Dickinson poem.  Dickinson made verse from lonely domestic nothingness, created punctuation and capitalization willy-nilly, and yet her skillful alignment of words and image and thought are the closest comparison I can make to Reichardt's tenacious sense of style and economy.  Dickinson once wrote, "If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry."  That same statement can apply to movies like this:  something physical spins out of the metaphysical, as style merges with substance, and you have a symmetry of meaning and not-meaning that somehow trumps reality and becomes more real.