Alienation and Futility in Night Moves

20 July 2014 at 22:38 (Uncategorized)

“In all three cases, violence and counter-violence are caught in a deadly vicious cycle, each generating the very opposite it tries to combat. Furthermore, what all three modes share, in spite of their fundamental differences, is the logic of a blind passage à l’acte: in all three cases, violence is an implicit admission of impotence.” – Slavoj Žižek, “Some Politically Incorrect Reflections on Violence in France and Related Matters

While the above quote refers to terrorism, the 2005 French riots, and Rightest Populist violence, it could just as easily describe the acts of property damage committed by the Earth Liberation Front (ELF). The organization, which was labeled a top domestic terrorist threat by the FBI in 2001, destroyed SUV’s, logging equipment, and McMansions in an effort to “stop the exploitation and destruction of the environment.” These acts clearly inspired the recently released Night Moves, directed by Kelly Reichardt. While billed as a thriller, the sense of futility and alienation that pervades Night Moves makes the film feel more like an existential drama about three individuals struggling to collectively respond in a meaningful, substantial way to the problems they recognize in the world.

Night Moves is nicely summarized by its trailer:

The trailer and the film present the three bombers–Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), Dena (Dakota Fanning), and Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard)–as isolated despite their attempts to connect with like-minded activists. The film grapples with this tension between alienation and activist communities in several key ways.

First, the film presents each of the three bombers as outsiders. Harmon most dramatically so, since he lives deep in the woods, alone in a trailer. Dena, on the other hand, clearly exhibits a privilege that the other characters lack. She purchases the boat used in he bombing with cash and speaks of growing up in Connecticut. Working in a spa, she seems somewhat removed from the rough lifestyle that Josh experiences in a commune. Of all the characters, Josh is the most puzzling–his screen time far exceeds all other characters, but his background is murkiest. He never explains where he came from or what brought him to his Oregon commune.

The poster for “Night Moves” emphasizes the disconnection its characters exhibit through their positioning. Image from

That commune provides the second point of tension, which is between the bombers and the community in which they circulate. Repeatedly, Night Moves presents a larger group of environmentalists that strives to create community. This effort verges on desperation, especially in an early scene when a group of environmentalists (Dena and Josh included) watch a documentary about environmental devastation. The conclusion of the film is an overly broad call-to-action. This impression is reinforced when the film’s director takes questions from the audience. One environmentalist comments on the importance of coming together to discuss these issues and learn from the film. This premature self-congratulation reveals how community activities can ameliorate rather than actually address the overwhelming problem of environmental degradation.

While such moments in Night Moves seem to justify the cynical outlooks of Jessie, Dena, and Harlon, the film does hint at the possibility of authentic community. Scenes do show the community farming and promoting sustainable practices, but Jessie remains distant despite the best attempts of a woman named Surprise (Alia Shawkat) to engage him. This sense of separation only increases after the bombing. Jessie appears remote as he hears other members of the community describing the act as fruitless. Additionally, a camper in the area at the time of the bombing goes missing, increasing the anxiety amongst the the trio. At one point, the apparent leader of the commune encourages Jessie to leave because of his suspicious behavior in the wake of the bombing. Ultimately, he does depart, landing in a sporting goods store where the camera lingers upon a family mannequins miming a camping scene. The crassly commercialized depiction of outdoor activity sharply contrasts what Jessie has left behind as a result of the bombing and its aftermath.

Ultimately, Night Moves depicts an act of violent protest with consequences dramatically different from what the perpetrators intended. Instead of raising consciousness, the bombers merely isolate themselves further from one another and from a community of like-minded individuals. By failing to generate any meaningful results, the bombing and others like it belongs on the list of futile acts Žižek’s essay describes.

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