Halfway through Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves, the film’s protagonists execute a carefully orchestrated act of ecoterrorism. It has finally arrived: our Norman Bates shower-stabbing scene, our climactic escape from the Shawshank. And all of the action happens off-screen.
This kind of barren climax isn’t uncommon for Reichardt, who spends much time in her films building up to a moment of catharsis, and has even admitted to manipulating time for this very cause, only to leave the viewer feeling even more apprehensive than before. This is certainly the case in Certain Women, a collage that follows the lives of four women, (Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, Lily Gladstone), which culminates, at the end, with one character driving all night to see another, only for their meeting to be terse and awkward. By no means do we feel satisfied, and that’s what’s so great about it. The same goes for Old Joy, a story of two friends (Daniel London, Will Oldham) growing apart that never really ends up resolving itself.
Night Moves follows a similar blueprint for suspense via dissatisfaction. The film examines the mission of three passionate environmentalists, Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), Dena (Dakota Fanning), and Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), as they carefully plan their destruction of a hydroelectric dam. Reichardt offers us extensive insight into the scientific planning process of the event, favoring, at first, process over emotion to heighten the film’s sense of reality, as well as the monumental stakes, and a deluge of possibilities when it comes to mistakes and miscalculations. We see the characters go through the elaborate process of buying supplies, fake IDs, and scoping out the area, and everything feels tactile and real, in the most ominous way.
Given the unique close look we are given into the process leading up to the act itself, it comes as something of a surprise that, when the bomb goes off, and the mission is accomplished, we don’t actually get to see it happen. Josh, Dena, and Harmon drive away from the site, and a muffled bang and distant flicker are the only clues we are given to signify this big event we have been waiting for has actually happened. Despite what should feel like an anticlimactic moment, the remainder of Night Moves delivers with a consistent, skin-crawling, nerve-pinching tone of suspense. This begs the question, then, of what is it that makes off-screen action so damn suspenseful.
Simply defined, suspense is anxiety that stems from uncertainty. So watching a murder take place, for example, might be gruesome and raise your heartbeat, but, if it’s clear what went down, it can’t really be accused of being suspenseful. One of the most horrific murders in cinematic history takes place at the end of Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men when the deranged Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) flips a coin to determine the fate of Carla (Kelly MacDonald). Once he’s flipped the coin, the camera cuts, and all we can do is wait for a clue that she’s been murdered. And when it comes, we have to imagine the scene. Which is somehow much worse. A more recent example takes place in Ari Aster’s beloved Hereditary, in which the most terrifying scene shows only a character’s face.
Alfred Hitchcock, the quintessential master of suspense, once defined the difference between surprise and suspense. He argued that surprise is when an unseen bomb suddenly goes off under a table, whereas suspense is when the audience sees a bomb under the table, but those sitting at the table don’t know it’s there. In showing us so much of the planning process, Night Moves gives us this bomb-under-the-table sensation, in that our eyes are now open to everything that could possibly go wrong. Not seeing the action is something of a bomb in itself: we don’t see what has happened, so it could really be anything.
Much of Night Moves’ plot centers around the fact that the environmentalists’ night move does not go as planned. And we are given a hint at this when the camera remains off-screen for the explosion because it allows our mind to wander and wonder if there were, in fact, any innocent bystanders.
And that’s exactly how the film ends. Before the credits roll, Josh attempts to wrangle a new life out of the chaos that has ensued. He applies for a job in retail, and the final shot lingers on a security mirror, in which we don’t see Josh’s reflection. Is that all he will be able to live as, a shadow of a person? Will he be able to escape his past? Or will it catch up to him in the most merciless way possible? The film ends before we can answer any of these questions, and we are left to imagine the worst. And that’s exactly how Reichardt wants it.