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'Night Moves' marks Kelly Reichardt's take on action-thriller

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Kelly Reichardt calls it "a thriller with a small t." Her newest film, "Night Moves," has its North American premiere Sunday at the Toronto International Film Festival following its world premiere a little over a week ago at the Venice Film Festival. Set amid alternative farming communities in Southern Oregon, the film explores the tension between idealism and activism, and the difficulty in negotiating between the two.

Lest that sound like a dry essay, there is a bomb plot motivating the action and the pacing of a paranoid thriller throwback to the conspiracy films of the 1970s. The intense, internal Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) works on a small organic farm and connects with young Dena (Dakota Fanning), who has turned away from her society family but still has access to money. Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) walked away from his time in the military with both skills and a cynical disaffection. With conviction, funding and know-how, the three together set in motion a plan to blow up a hydroelectric dam as an act of protest.

Reichardt's collaborations with co-writer Jon Raymond have made her among the most critically lauded independent filmmakers in America, even if her work has yet to break through with wider audiences. Their films have been noted for their social consciousness, subtly political storytelling and quiet emotionalism. In 2008's "Wendy and Lucy," Michelle Williams played a young woman traveling alone with her dog who is stranded in a small town when her car breaks down, highlighting the fragile equilibrium of those on the economic edges. In the ambitious period story of 2010's "Meek's Cutoff," an 1845 wagon train becomes lost on its way out West, creating an allegory on leadership and society-building.

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Though their new story is set against a world of alternative agrarianism and direct action, with "Night Moves" Reichardt and Raymond were looking to explore caper film mechanics and the modulation of tension more than they did the specifics of an issue. In making their version of an action-thriller, the pair focused on process as much as results, the feelings of the characters as much as their motivations.

"I think it's a character film about these political people, more than I think of it as being a political film," Reichardt said in a phone call from her home in New York. "I want the movie to not have a political agenda. We were really just focused on these three characters, three imperfect people."

"I think we are both politically minded people, but we're not politicians in any way," said Raymond in a phone interview from Portland, Ore. "The way I ended up explaining it is: Personally I'm interested in political questions to generate a story and characters, but I'm not that interested in political answers to those questions. There's a point at which the question has to give way to drama."

The cast committed fully. Reichardt noted that Eisenberg lived in a yurt during part of the shoot, also working on the farm where the film was being shot and more than once helping to get a truck unstuck from the mud. Sarsgaard often drove a boat even when he wasn't on camera, and Fanning pitched in with her costars and the crew when bags of fertilizer needed to be moved in haste due to a change in schedule.

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"The cast is down in it. They're not off in a trailer waiting for us," said Reichardt. "They are deeply involved in the filmmaking. No one sits it out."

The film was shot in southern Oregon over some 30 days last year. Working again with cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, who shot "Meek's Cutoff" and worked on Sofia Coppola's "The Bling Ring," Reichardt for the first time shot "Night Moves" digitally. She again edited the film herself, as she has all her features, going back to 2006's "Old Joy."

At the Venice festival, the Guardian remarked that the filmmaker takes a "volatile story and handles it with care and precision, as if transporting unstable nitroglycerin."

The title for "Night Moves" comes from the name of the boat the central trio acquires for its mission. Yet "Night Moves" also brings to mind the 1975 film of the same name directed by Arthur Penn and starring Gene Hackman and a young Melanie Griffith in a detective story that combined post-noir characters with a post-Watergate disillusionment. Reichardt noted that she had always felt "a connection" to the Penn film because it was shot in the Florida Keys near where she spent time with her family while growing up in Miami.

Especially coming off the extensive period research and physically grueling production that went into making "Meek's Cutoff," the pair was excited to make a contemporary-set film. "We wanted it to be really today," said Reichardt. "I kept calling it a crunchy noir."

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The film is the fourth collaboration between Reichardt and Raymond. Reichardt also teaches film at Bard College in New York, while Raymond was recently nominated for an Emmy for his work on "Mildred Pierce" with Todd Haynes. (It was Haynes, a mutual friend to both, who first introduced the pair.) Reichardt will be scrambling to get back to Bard to teach classes around festival appearances with the new film, which is currently looking for U.S. distribution.

Reichardt is reluctant to draw a connection between the idealistic activism of the characters in "Night Moves" and her own commitment to making her films in her own way, saying only, "I don't want to put that burden on myself." However, she does allow, "I feel fortunate we've been able to make these films. Not that I think they're perfect, but the mistakes are mine."

Even after setting out to make a film with more genre elements, the deliberate pacing and clipped storytelling of the other collaborations between Reichardt and Raymond nevertheless emerged. They can't get away from themselves, even when they try.

"We thought, 'Wow, this is action-packed for us,'" said Reichardt. "And I just remember calling Jon at some point while I was editing to say it doesn't feel so 'other' from the other films. It just has more plot."

mark.olsen@latimes.com

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