Michael Mann’s Blackhat
Computer technologies, digital networks and interfaces, and mobile communications tend to intensify physical presence by paradoxically putting new emphasis on bodily knowing, communications, and tactile information.
—Brandon LaBelle, Background Noise
Michael Mann has finally made a film about idealist individuals. Or at least a film about those who break the patterns of the streams they live in, as opposed to accept the inexplicable systems that form their societies. Clouds form abstract shapes above cities, where rigid and jagged materials form distinct lines. Even the streets of Hong Kong and its endless bazaars simply look like a grid from above. There is complex theory and there is chaos theory. Mann knows the world is the former, but he can’t help but shoot his camera up toward the latter—searching the heavens for freedom.
Blackhat is Mann’s first feature film since 2009’s Public Enemies, which was a film about a rebel in a world where systems of organization were developed into making him simply an anomaly to be targeted and erased. The protagonist of Blackhat, Chris Hemsworth’s Hathaway, has yet to be erased, but now simply acts as another cog in a guarded system—he’s a hacker doing time in prisons, spending his days reading up on Foucault. He knows that simply because he’s surrounded by walls doesn’t mean the outside world is anything but a prison without them. When he first steps out onto the runway of an airport, he can only see material of grays and blacks, out of focus and without dimension. It’s simply a mass.
Then a hand grabs his arm, and everything becomes tangibly real.
That hand belongs to Lien (Tang Wei), a female engineer who happens to be the sister of Hathaway’s partner in a global hacker investigation, Dawai. On paper, there’s nothing that remotely should bring these two together beyond the conventions of Hollywood storytelling. But cinema isn’t a tale of what’s, but how’s. That hand is the first of many tactile surfaces that bring these bodies together. Mann uses cinematic sight to represent touch, making each haptic surface contain a felt presence by simply being captured by his camera. Each of Hemsworth’s little unshaven stubs. Tang’s hair, each strand flowing in the wind. The feel of their skin being held by each other means they tangible exist together in a world where planes of space are dissolving.
There is a sense in Blackhat that the digital world has collapsed time and space—when Lien and Hathaway must escape at one point, there is an ad for a wristwatch literally looming behind them in the window—but if you can have a tangible body, then you have something to hold. “She’s never been this happy,” Dawai tells Hathaway. But what happens when that material is no longer there? If Hathaway is simply part of the network, his corporeal self is a program waiting to be erased.
Blackhat begins in Beyond Jupiter, a CGI created environment of a grid only imagined as the flow of light. And it’s a film about how intangible material, only imagined through computer screens, becomes real (a password is captured as a series of handstrokes). There is a haunting immediacy through the digital cinematography developed by Mann and his DP Stuart Dryburgh. Often shot in what appears like high-frame rate or motion smoothing, the action in Blackhat has a surreal feeling: alien in its untraditional cinematic look, while all too authentic in the feeling that each gesture belongs to the here and now. Physical violence appears smeared through its velocity; explosions of fire are slowed to a stop to capture those infinite seconds before material turns to chaos. And simply look at the blood pouring out at one moment: it has a silver sheen to the dark hues. This isn’t the movie world. It’s as real as that feeling of when a knife moves into a body. It’s there. It happened.
But movie worlds are so key to Mann’s way of making movies. His characters are archetypes, though often without much in the way of backstories or exposition. Conversations are fueled by exposition and plot development, yet chopped at the moment they become unnecessary. Narrative conventions are necessary evils—questionable setups in order to achieve something lyrical, as real as the escape Hathaway plans.
Blackhat’s villains are seemingly generic, but in many ways simply anonymous. They have the wants that define classic movie conventions (money, power), but their ultimate goals remain undescribed, a sense of digital currency, powers outside of the perspective of the protagonists. There are always “bigger politics” as the good guys seemingly phrase it, but there are moments of personal, quiet devastation, like a character recalling 9/11 before staring at a building in the sky at the moment of death.
So there is a price to pay, because touching photos as you swipe through a phone isn’t the same as touching a body. So while narrative remains generic, violence becomes real. Blackhatters flow with the system in order to exploit it; Hathaway flows against the lights of a Jakarta festival, no longer working in the world he helped to create. In the end, he must touch his enemy—a knife, twelve times into the stomach—in order to bring some justice. Not total justice, and not total freedom. A surveillance screen still catches their movements after all.
And yet these bodies are together, moving as one. They are no longer cogs in a mass, but clouds moving into a white sky.
Comic Ideology: Richard Fleischer’s Mandingo
Less a cousin of Django Unchained than 12 Years A Slave, Mandingo addresses the issues of personal pleasure (sexual and violent) against the ideology of the South and slavery. But where McQueen’s choice of a hyper-aware beautiful aesthetic created an awkward rift between his distanced attempt at an objective perspective and the cartoonish behavior he documents in the narrative’s latter half (mostly thanks to Michael Fassbinder’s performance), director Richard Fleischer’s choice to embrace the exploitation tone makes this a more nuanced affair in many ways. Because everyone acts like they’re in a bad version of Masterpiece Theater (just watch James Mason chomp up every line), the parts where their artifice often breaks feels more in tuned with ideological frameworks as a form of performativity, and thus a the film’s sense of psychological nuance becomes a realism. The confrontation between Made and Blanche is full of very careful performance moments where they’re intellectual desires slowly fall, and thanks to his zoom lenses, Fleischer captures the psychology changing before their eyes in a way that would make Béla Balázs shout with joy. The face in Mandingo becomes a tool for political discourse.
Fleischer shoots the film in 1.85 here as opposed to his standard Cinema-Scope 2.35, but space is often a factor. White characters are often centered with African Americans pushed off to the sides, the use of mirrors allows shots to run longer and put characters into unique spatial dynamics. And a great late dolly shows a stunning moment as it repeats the opening shot of a character looking down on the slaves, but it’s about who’s POV this shot ultimately belongs to and what they are looking at, which isn’t even revealed until halfway through the dolly. For all its trashy gloss then, it’s a film full of subtle details that feel only registered by the camera and thus the spectator gazing into the past. The way that Mason and King discuss “white ladies” is as crass and Othering as their discussion of their “wenches” and “fighting niggers.” But often what’s striking about the characters—both white and black—is how they look with distrust not because of ideological reasons but their own personal drives. It is simply that the system they live them allows those personal drives to be used for easy exploitation—Hammond discovers Made’s fighting abilities while at a visit to a brothel, and will use his prowess to essentially supplant his sexual desire (a choice that comes back to haunt him).
Fernando Croce reevaluates the often dismissive comparison to Showgirls by noting, “both films are descendants of Douglas Sirk’s sublime frenzies, utterly unafraid of looking the ridiculous straight in the eye.” But it’s the moments that are just barely noted—Hammond’s quick-haste dismissal of his slave mistress during a moment of violent determination the most damning—that make Mandingo a film that captures ideology without centering it. It’s a film that doesn’t ask us to gawk at atrocities through a pristine lens (though really a prestige lens), but to really look beyond surfaces to see what really makes a mind work when living in an paradoxical ideology.
Philippe Garrel’s Jealousy
Jealousy, a 77-minute brisk waltz through a series of relationships (always ending, never beginning), is my choice for the film of the year. It’s a film by Philippe Garrel, a director whose work extends back to the New Wave, but works here like the era never ended. Shot in black and white 35mm, it often feels like a relic of lost time, a slippage of memories carefully stitched together in the hope that one may learn from past mistakes. It opens with a woman crying and closes on a man staring blankly before turning off a light, and in between these shots is a search for truth in others, a fool’s ambition.
“Love has its limits,” an old mentor relays to Louis, played by Garrel’s own son (also Louis). Louis claims his power to love beyond anything, but by this point we know there’s a difference between what he says and what he’s done. He’s gone one wife and one to a second, Claudia (Anna Mouglalis), but it doesn’t take him long to begin prospective kisses without any emotional warning. Louis and Claudia profess their undying love in one scene while always searching beyond the frame for something else. They occasionally hint at the deep seeded mistrust underneath their words of desire, which in fact only create the fuel for the titular emotion to begin a search outside their cramped apartment.
Garrel’s shots have a simplicity that simply puts characters’ bodies in direct relationship to physical love. Loving moments always take place in master shots, where two bodies collapse on top of each other. Fights always appear in shot-reverse shots, the emotions unknowable within the same frame. To not embody the same space is to create suspicion, and it is only when the ugly truth is revealed can Louis and Claudia employ the same frame while showing their ugliness. Like Eyes Wide Shut, it’s a film that asks more of the metaphysical aspects of love than tangible material. After Louis talks to a fellow cute performer in his troupe, the film cuts to Claudia sitting at dinner and suddenly feeling the urge to rush home. “I thought you left,” she exclaims in fear.
Unlike Kubrick’s work, however, the deeper mystery of Jealousy is externalized through not anxiety but through its matter-of-fact mise-en-scene and especially its confrontational editing, eliding both time and emotion in a way that never announces betrayal. Each edit in a Garrel film feels like a weight of time slipping away—how much has passed exactly?—and characters slip out of life like the rushing water of a stream, their sudden change in feeling a cause of time more than human control. Jean-Louis Albert’s guitar and piano gently hum along to signal the lightness of image that sublimates the complex emotions. A pleasant day of father-child-and girlfriend in the park produces happy memories that are juxtaposed with mother’s work of cooking, tucking in, and then sewing while the child sleeps (will she ever remember the real work of true love?). The decrepit walls of a tiny apartment signal the own tenuousness of the love produced there, and Claudia’s most damning betrayal for Louis is not her physical one but the fact she abandons their calling as struggling artists.
In the end, it’s all acting perhaps (“So don’t imagine”), not just for one’s lover but for oneself. Strangers can bring you freedom (“Don’t ask my name or if I come here often”), but real love is always in some way, dependent on a performance (“If you knew, why did you pretend tonight?”). Even a devastating gesture only represents a desire to play to a certain audience uninterested in attending this play. Only the child can see past the performance, incredulous that her own birth was love at first sight. Before Jealousy reaches that final shot of Louis, the final scene begins to fade to white as the film stock rolls out—a technical mistake or the signaling that it’s all a dream? We’re not sure where exactly Louis is in that final shot, or whether he is recalling events or simply imagining them. “Everyone has their reasons,” Renoir remarked 75 years ago. For Garrel’s cinema, not knowing anyone else’s is the tragedy.
Three on A Doorway
Milkyway Goes America: John Wick
“In Hollywood films, repetitions of situations or lines of dialogue tend to measure an arc of progress or degree of development. Art cinema tends to use repetition to establish mundane routine, to suggest psychological states eddying underneath behavior, and to create symbolic parallels. Wong Kar-wai’s repetitions often fulfill these functions. With To and Wai, repetition is used as an almost mechanical device, rhyming characters, bits of business, and settings in ways that suggest a closed world ruled by rather narrow laws […] The tendency toward mechanical, somewhat absurd repetition of action, tics, and props goes along with another method for tightening the plot. To and Wai turn from the Hong Kong episodic norm by creating more intricate chains of action than other local filmmakers attempt. But instead of relying on character development, they devise schemes—plans, usually devious, that central characters put into motion. In To’s plots,characters plot.”
—David Bordwell, Planet Hong Kong 2.0
John Wick, a Keanu Reeves-starring revenge thriller developed by Chris Stahleski and David Leitch (responsible for 2012’s The Package), features only two scenes of elongated fabula, where a character explains motivations, backgrounds, or other details that usually create the theme of a film. While I doubt if Wick‘s screenwriter Derek Kolstad has even heard of Milkyway Image (he cites The Raid in an interview), the film’s screenplay can’t help by recall Johnnie To’s motto to “leave blank spaces” (liú kōng) and have audiences fill in the edges of the minimal exposition. While the simplicity of the plot (a standard revenge tale, which sadly involves the death of a poor puppy) is miles behind the complexity of To and producer Wai Ka Fai, John Wick doesn’t follow the rules of the way Hollywood tells it, and instead relies on inference.
I understand why my colleague Vadim Rizov could see the various schemas built by Kolstad’s screenplay to be in service of some cinematic building universe scheme in the Marvel, but the construction of the dialogue never emphasizes these points: no character ever explains what a gold coin is nor the “dinner reservations” hot line. Or it is better to say, these narrative events only make sense as plot elements as they are happening in the moment. The relationship between Reeves and Willem Dafoe’s hit men follows a similar schema: their background is left ambiguous, and Dafoe’s motivations via his two “helping hands” only make sense via an inference pattern based on previous information. Additionally, the latter of these two scenes works as both narrative surprise and payoff as built on the previous scene—there is no set up or even hint of a set up. When Dafoe later returns in a scene with Main Baddie Michael Nyquist, there is never any forced explanation of how Nyquist jumped from Assumption A to Conclusion B. This isn’t completely in the realm of Milkyway Image’s even more didactic elliptical storytelling, but it’s getting closer to a terse style of dialogue that minimizes any forced exposition.
John Wick, however, is primarily an action film, and thus has been rightfully praised for the film’s intensely choreographed and brutally graphic violence. As both Ben Sachs and Stephanie Zacharek have eloquently elucidated, the action sequences rely on a series of steady long takes in carefully choreographed minimalist spaces (not abstract, but clear lines, backgrounds, and diagonals) with enough distance by the camera to capture the movements while never diluting their visceral impact. But there’s more toWick, however, and it isn’t that the film build some relationship to ballet as many action films are now compared to.
In fact, what makes the film both brutal but also stunning is the specificity to the sequences. Wick treats each bullet like a part of the physical matter. Men aren’t just shot—they are hit in the arm, a leg, or a head. Reeves actually holds and aims a gun, so that there is a clear visual eye-line created between the aim of the weapon and the eventual entry point of every bullet, and most random baddies require multiple shots in a variation of bodily locales to actually sedate them. And then there’s the reloading, which is constantly happening throughout the film, even made into one of the film’s funniest jokes during the Red Circle sequence. John Wick thus slowly plays between its more expressionist functions—lush, saturated colors that reflect into the film’s over-accentuated drama—and its realist attitude of relating each body on screen to a physical presence, while also implementing the film’s coded language to avoid any forced awareness of the narrative schemas at play.
This is all to say, John Wick treats violence in a way different from To’s movies and instead via the same way the titular protagonist does so: violence is violence, which is both an amoral and essential act.
Closed For Interpretation: Lars Von Trier’s Nymhomaniac
Lars Von Trier has made a career out of stunts: explicit material, crass juxtapositions between the high and low, casting of unexpected actors, and outlandish statements. This makes Von Trier at once a nuisance in contemporary cinema—someone who thinks he is telling the Real Truth when it’s just a satirized form of regular ideology—and perhaps a necessity. It’d be great if the American vision of contemporary Euro-Art cinema was, say, more Alain Guiaurdie or Thomas Arslan, but instead we have Von Trier and Herr Haneke, mostly because the way they directly invoke and challenge the expectations of Hollywood cinema. In a way, they urge us to balance our diet of Hollywood cinema with their “cultural vegetables.” Von Trier’s cinema wouldn’t exist without someone to gasp at it.
This is all to say, the easy reading of Nymphomaniac, his five and a half hour opus, would be as a self-critical examination of the director’s own career. One could even place each of the chapter’s into the various sections of his filmography: plot points from Breaking The Waves, a direct quotation of a scene and the music from Antichrist; is the scene of Joe and the African men is a play on Manderlay? Even Joe’s discussion of Hitler and the way Seligman misinterprets her point of evokes Von Trier’s indiscretion at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.
A better way to put Nymphomaniac into context is less autobiographical than read it as a statement of artistic principles, or a dialectic on why Von Trier makes Von Trier movies. Trailers, advertisements, early reports focused exclusively on “how far” would Von Trier go—and even the basic log line feels like a parody of one of his films. What wasn’t focused on was the fact that the entire film centers around the discussions between Joe and Seligman, the artist and the critic. Like all Von Trier films, this debate occurs between directly opposite philosophies: Joe’s nihilistic spirituality wants to prove she has sinned, while Seligman rationalizing, contextualizing, and normalizing each part of her behavior.
Seligman’s digressions into fly-fishing, Fibonacci, polyphony music are at once Bad Interpretation and completely reasonable compared to Joe’s insistence that her acts were truly masochistic. Shot in a weary room in which the walls seem to be dying, the sequences are at once decidedly slow in terms of the two actors’ soft spoken voices, but the shot length and amount of editing is surprisingly speedy for the Tarkovsky-influenced auteur. It’s as if word and image clash: Dreyer-esque stillness against Dostoevskian theoretical debate. East Church Vs West, pleasure vs. pain, male vs. female, virgin vs. whore: Von Trier chooses the biggest targets possible to smash together.
It’s not the clash that’s interesting (such as the film’s early and tiresome Rammstein cue) but the aftermath of these. Seligman thinks he can contain Joe’s story and deny the own artist’s interpretation, while Joe continually re-asserts, “you’re not even listening.” Seligman’s perfected virginity in ways provides the perfect Straw Man for Von Trier’s Joe, and not in a bad way—he can’t get off on the material, and thus Joe’s critic does not even respond to the basic level in a way Von Trier sees necessary. Like many of his “New Extremism” contemporaries (Noe, Dumont, Haneke), part of responding to a Von Trier film is the fact that one must either feel pleasure or pain, and it is in responding to that bodily function that one finds meaning. This is what makes Nymphomaniac most compelling—what happens when we remove the body from cinema?
The most essential scene in this, ironically, is the sequence only available in the complete director’s cut: a lengthy abortion sequence, described quite thoroughly by Peter Debruge. It must have been an obvious cut for the international censors, because while most of the sex is, well, sex, this is truly the most squeamish and offensive the film truly gets. It also thus gets to I think what the core of Nymphomaniac is really about: the importance of provocation as a narrative device. Joe’s ideas of why she wants an abortion are so morally objectionable, and the procedure so brutal to watch (bravo to whatever digital or prosthetic work was done here), that even Seligman has a hard time putting them into his theory. “On principle, I believe that taboos are damaging for human beings,” Joe demands.
What you can say about Joe’s abortion rhetoric, her demand to use the word “negro” to explain the aforementioned ménage à trois, or her sympathy for pedophiles, is not that one must agree with it, but it is Von Trier laying his cards plainly with an explanation. Do we need one? There’s another version of Nymphomaniac without Joe and Seligman’s debates, a film which simply tracks Joe from her erotic becoming at age 2 all the way through thousands of men before being pissed on by her adoptive daughter-cum-sexual-replacement. And what would be the meaning of that story? Certainly not the interpretation given by Seligman near the end as a proto-feminist tale, nor Joe’s interpretation as a moral failing that leads to an attempt to purify herself and reach some idealistic goal of transcendence. Von Trier knows that such lofty goals, read into his films or general, are silly affairs, and so Nymphomaniac ends with the follies of both man and woman, Joe and Seligman recant their ideas. It’s the final pun on an elongated joke–not the eros of Scheherazade and the king, nor the jovial return of The Decameron, but a final trolling in case you were also “not listening carefully.” Nymphomaniac must end with a bang. Von Trier isn’t here to reconcile his points of view with a more rational form of society, only to state their necessity to exist and clash. If Von Trier didn’t exist, cinema would have to invent him.
The Art of Oneself — Michael Bay’s Transformers: Age of Extinction
In many ways, the Transformers movies have always been somewhat plagued by a weird quasi-meshing of Spielberg’s penchant boy-growing-up-among-the-awe narratives with Michael Bay’s own crass maximalism (a meaningless word, but how else to describe what’s on screen). Age of Extinction eliminates the main component of the former director’s hand – Shia Labeouf’s alienating and always too smug every-boy – in favor of Marky Mark Wahlberg, who mutates into whatever he needs to be from scene to scene (techie, overly concerned parent, football star, machine gun expert). It’s a good metaphor for the film itself, which struck me as a work completely outside of its own interest as a film made by a studio for entertainment. Instead, it morphs into a parade of advertisement for each of its backers — Hasbro, Victoria’s Secret, Chevrolet, and Budweiser (not to mention numerous Chinese sponsors I didn’t recognize). The last of those companies comes up in a scene so crassly made that you could snip that 30 seconds from the film and it could have easily been a spot during the Super Bowl. A colleague of mine once posited that movie theaters are slowly morphing into the mall—a space for people to hang out more than experience film, and this film certainly made that experience seem like less a warning of doom than a proposition of truth. Goodbye Cinema, Hello Capitalism 2.0.
Age of Extinction wants to be a bit of everything, a type of Access For All narrative that is common for Hollywood, but feels more paradoxical under Bay’s lens: Pro-American, Anti-Government, Anti- and Pro-Business, Anti-Drones, Pro-Women via a lens of misogyny (Who carries a laminated card with a statute?), and most importantly Pro-China. Bay claims that it was completely his decision to shoot in the East (as seen in Kevin B. Lee’s Premake), but I can’t imagine him molding a film that sees the American government completely as buffoons and then also include a scene where the Chinese Defense Minister confidently declares they will do everything they can to protect Hong Kong. Bay’s subjugation and crass bowing to his financiers is likely a lack of skill than some Brechtian effect, but I found it all kind of exciting to watch the Franken-birth of a new type of Blockbuster. In a way, I kind of prefer looking at Bay’s films and knowing exactly where my money is going and what is expected of me as an audience member; it’s like wearing the They Live glasses.
Within all of this horrifying consumerism, there is also the Art Of Bay—equal parts disturbing and fascinating, or perhaps just fascinating in the disturbing “soul” (just like the Transformers!) that it reveals. Every shot of Nicola Peltz’s ass in Texas is like some horny man’s version of Days of Heaven. A comic relief character is blown into an acidic and grotesque statue and circled around in four shots like he’s as beautiful as the Statue of David. “I’m asking you to look at the junk and see the treasure,” Wahlberg’s protagonist proclaims, but what separates Bay’s compositions from a Tony Scott (or an Joseph H. Lewis and Edgar G. Ulmer) is that his art is the art of sadism. He may truly delight in a morality so despicable, but he’s also a filmmaker who so thoroughly reveals his own Interior Meaning; watching his films is like the temptation to stare at the sun.
And yet, there is a physical component to watching Bay. There’s a scene with a bunch of Transformers jump all around Monument Valley (and earlier, a poster for Hawks’s El Dorado!); what’s astonishing to watch is how each little jump brushes up little specks of rock and dust throughout, each moving with total respect to the physical universe these CGI creates are visiting. The integration of Bay’s physical elements and his digital effects is astonishing, especially given the amount of dirt, rock, glass, concrete, and other material that makes up any given frame of his film. There’s particularly a shot of the camera gliding toward a boat in an early action scene as marines are about to raid a Transformer where I noticed how many separate elements the camera was catching without feeling overwhelming. As others have noted, 3D has slowed his camera down, and he’s almost exclusively broken from any sense of chaos cinema to downright classical continuity – the spaceship chase through Chicago might be a new standard in terms of three-dimensional spatial continuity. Additionally, a final climax involving hundreds of physical moving objects floating up and down as the digital effects ask them to defy gravity is the work of each shot thoroughly investigating each part of the frame—no pixel left unturned. There’s simply a detail to Bay that eludes the grand gesture filmmaking in other blockbusters I’ve indulged this year, where things move cleanly but rarely with a reverence to the potential of cinema to capture something authentic, even if it’s in a world of CGI alien robots. Bigger is not necessarily better, but the further away Bay travels from humans and closer to the vision of maximalism, the simulacra suddenly turns tactile—it feels real, which in the spectatorial position of cinema, is close enough to saying it is real.
Bay’s a scattershot fuck up, but he’s our scattershot fuck up, and no one can best the filmmaker at his own game. He has perfected the art of himself.
The End of Men: Images by Hong Sang-Soo and Louis CK
Frame of Reference: Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves
Night Moves, a decidedly didactic feature from Kelly Reichardt, is a film that is set deliberately within the closed-off minds of its protagonists, a set of eco-terrorists set on blowing up a dam in Oregon. Because of this lack of an outside, Reichardt does not offer an easy set of morality and politics to offer up to create a point of comparison. The closest the film ever comes to creating an antagonist is a local fertilizer seller who simply wants to follow the government’s rules about needing to send in a social security number in order to purchase the substance. Instead, Reichardt’s critique is crafted through her trademark minimalism, a film that examines the ripples of a pure ideology. The film’s protagonist Josh, played by a phenomenally minimal Jesse Eisenberg, is brimming with paranoia at every second. But he’s also rarely looking past the frame.
Using a genre for something more crafty and subdued was also buried deep within Riechardt’s last feature, Meek’s Cutoff, a Western with a shift of power so subtle it was lost on many audience members. Night Moves seems to be having somewhat of a similar reaction, with the recognizable genre elements overpowering her real motivations (there is also an issue that the director has decided to attack a liberal cause, a facet many critics have labored on). The totality of the director’s intentions are present throughout, especially during an early sequence when Josh and Dena (Dakota Fanning) meet up with their fellow conspirator Harlon (Peter Saarsgard) at a local diner. Each can’t trust the other, raising issues to each other about the loyalty of the other to the mission. These people are looking inward, not outward, and Reichardt always positions one against two within the frame.
Certainly Josh never looks outward—whenever he does, his perception is warped by his fundamentalist beliefs. As Vadim Rizov notes of a scene where the young man visits inside a wealthy home, “We see his neighborhood through Josh’s angry eyes: the backyard waterfall is a clear misallocation of resources, the golf on TV the final insult…Night Moves makes it easier to view the everyday world’s physical components through perpetually, justifiably aggrieved environmentalist eyes.” Josh only sees things for their use, and even his ambiguous relationship with Dena (Dakota Fanning) is mostly as an object (her rich Connecticut father is unknowingly funding their entire operation). The young girl’s own beliefs are fundamentally flawed, as she postulates on the future destruction based on (one) college class she took. As one montage sequence shows, there might actually be very little to differentiate these people from those who use the park grounds for recreation. They just don’t realize it.
The idea that Night Moves is originally endorsing its protagonists goals and methods, as some have claimed, is fundamentally flawed. Because of Reichardt’s minimalism in both plot and tone, there’s no sense that we are supposed to want them to succeed. Reichardt’s staging is one of work—the camera there captures the material essence of their process: loading armed fertilizer, attaching boats to trucks, and planning every detail (or at least freaking out about those details). They remain centered within themselves, and Reichardt plays it as such. When it comes to the deed, a Hitchcockian placed flat tire plays out entirely in long shot, putting us wholly within the environmentalists’ head spaces. But they never grapple with the practicalities of their ideology—Josh makes a remark about society destroying salmon in favor of keeping their iPods running, but it seems like a false remark based on little he sees. Even the bombing itself becomes a metaphor—they simply stare straight as the camera stays focused on their unblinking faces. If they’re also Marxists, they may want to go check the chapter about products of our labor.
Instead, as the world slowly opens up to Josh’s family, as well as an unintended consequence of the bombing, the convictions of these ideology give way to personal and moral convolutions. Reichardt emphasizes these slowly—Dena is seen scratching herself right after the bombing, which develops into a rash (only seen in soft focus), to full out hives. It’s this kind of physical detail, never overstated, but crucial to her character, that Reichardt layers within, making the terrifying climax psychologically justified as well as intensely thrilling.
If Night Moves does ultimately divulge into a “crime doesn’t pay” message, it is one that comes with extra baggage and political consequences than something that simplistic. Josh doesn’t go to jail for his actions, he instead forced to reintegrate himself into the system. His surrogate father explains that their environmental goals have never been to change the world, simply create their own little sanctuary. Josh can’t live with that, so he’s forced into (what else but) an outdoor camping gear store and filling out a job application. In a mirror, he spies on two women, both taking time out of their shopping experience to check their iPods.