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Archive for October, 2014

This blog entry contains spoilers.

Shortly before seeing Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves (2013), I finally got around to reading Robert McKee’s screenwriting manual, Story (1998), which recommends that a two hour movie have at least four major turning points: an inciting incident that gets the ball rolling and another big reversal at the end of each act. By my reckoning, however, Reichardt’s film just has three major turning points, and while McKee advises writers to get to the inciting incident as quickly as possible with thirty minutes being the upper limit, here the first big reversal doesn’t occur until an hour and seven minutes into the movie when its protagonist, Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) — a radical environmentalist who takes part in the bombing of a hydroelectric dam — learns that a camper was killed in the explosion.

I take this to be the inciting incident because, in McKee’s words, it upsets the balance of the protagonist’s life and raises what he terms the “major dramatic question”: We want to know if Josh will be punished for the camper’s death or if he’ll somehow get away with it. After the bombing, he tells his accomplice, Dena (Dakota Fannng), “We just gotta get home, show up for work tomorrow morning… Just get back to normal, okay?” And at this point in the film, there’s nothing to stop them from doing just that, but after the discovery of the camper’s body, Josh receives a phone call from a third conspirator, Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), who tells him that Dena isn’t handling it well. Worried that she might go to the police, Josh initially tries talking to her, but when word of his involvement reaches the communal farm where he lives, forcing him to move out (the second big turning point), he escalates to threats before finally strangling her.

Of course, Reichardt and her cowriter, Jonathan Raymond, could’ve gotten to the inciting incident much sooner, but in this case, the film would’ve been less exciting if they had. As soon as it becomes apparent that Josh and his cohorts are planning to blow up the dam, we instinctively know that something must go wrong (or so right as to make the bombing superfluous), so rather than getting it over with as quickly as possible, the movie draws out the suspense by throwing up obstacles which delay the characters from carrying out their plan. Specifically, in order to make a big enough bomb, they need to procure five hundred pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, but when someone buys that much manure, it tends to raise eyebrows. So when the boys send Dena to make the purchase, the suspense arises from our apprehension that the clerk (James Le Gros) — who refuses to sell her that much fertilizer without a social security card — is going to call the cops on her.

Another thing that keeps the movie interesting is the way it doles out information about the characters in small doses so that we have to keep revising our ideas about them. In the conspicuously terse opening sequence, as Josh and Dena walk back from the dam to Josh’s truck, their dialogue is too low for us to make out what they’re saying so it only becomes apparent in retrospect what they’re really up to. At this point, it looks they might be on a date, but one quickly discards this hypothesis as we never see them kiss, hold hands, or even smile at one another. (Later on, it’s even hinted that there’s something going on between Dena and Harmon or maybe I’m just imagining it.) In fact, it’s never explained how Josh and Dena know each other, nor do we ever find out how they got involved in the plot to blow up the dam, yet it never feels like the film is being overly coy. Reichardt knows exactly how much the viewer needs to know and when, and leaves out everything that’s inessential.

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