Kelly Reichardt, Night Moves, 2013, color, sound, 112 minutes. Josh (Jesse Eisenberg).

THE OREGON LANDSCAPE, whether paradisiacal or punishing, has featured prominently in all of Kelly Reichardt’s four features, beginning with her 2006 breakthrough, Old Joy. Yet never has it loomed quite as solemnly as in her latest, Night Moves, co-scripted with her regular collaborator Jon Raymond. Like many of the director’s films, Night Moves, which tracks a trio of eco-terrorists who detonate a hydraulic dam, is firmly rooted in the present, though the ideals—and abandoned hopes—of the past are still being sifted through. (The inverse is true in Reichardt’s previous movie, Meek’s Cutoff, from 2010: Set in 1845, this minimalist western about the folly of Manifest Destiny doubles as a cogent commentary on the imperialist overreach and failed leadership of the Bush II administration.) Reichardt’s films smartly anatomize the snags in the social fabric without trumpeting a position.

“People are gonna start thinking; they have to,” Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) says to his extremist collaborators, Dena (Dakota Fanning) and Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), framing the destruction they are planning as a public-service announcement—a wakeup call to those who’ve been “killing all the salmon just so you can run your fucking iPod every second of your life.” The grandstanding is a rare moment of self-righteous zeal from the normally taciturn organic farmer, and in the film as a whole; Night Moves, as with its predecessors, emphasizes process over easy polemics. Just enough detail accrues about Josh and the other members of the cell—Dena, who works at a luxury spa/hot-springs resort, comes from a wealthy family in the East and bankrolls the operation; Harmon’s mastery of blowing things up was honed in the Marine Corps—and the dynamics of the triangle to ground the film. Character specifics exist in tandem with the technicalities of executing action: how to acquire five hundred pounds of ammonia-nitrate fertilizer, say, or politely ignore a garrulous hiker who intrudes during a crucial moment of downtime before the act of sabotage commences.

These incidents—not to mention the final minutes leading up to the bombing itself—are breathtakingly tense and dominate the film’s first half. If the second, which centers primarily on Josh’s icy unraveling after the attack has a grave, unintended consequence, is less successful, what remains constant is Reichardt’s ability to coolly present thorny sociopolitical and moral issues. As shot by Christopher Blauvelt (also the cinematographer for Meek’s Cutoff), the sheer Edenic splendor of the Pacific Northwest makes clear what these radicals are fighting for, just as denuded trees in a popular lake resort, populated by Price Is Right–blaring RVs, remind them—and us—of the irreparable harm already done. Yet just as irretrievable is the collateral damage wrought by the enviro-jihadis.

Taking its name from the motorboat Josh and Dena purchase for the operation, Reichardt’s film, surely not coincidentally, shares a title with Arthur Penn’s neo-noir from 1975, the earlier feature imbued with a distinct post-Watergate malaise. But another movie from that year, Milestones, Robert Kramer and John Douglas’s epic dirge on the failed dreams of 1960s radicals, would seem to be a lodestar for Reichardt’s project. “I think one of the things we figured out was that a revolution was not just a series of incidents but a whole life,” a character in Milestones says—a rueful statement that the protagonists of Night Moves begin to grapple with too late.

Melissa Anderson

Night Moves opens in limited release on Friday, May 30.