I'll kick off my film music review series with Jeff Grace's score to Kelly Reichardt's Night Moves, which I saw this weekend at Cosford Cinema on the University of Miami campus. Every week or two, I check out a film here. Night Moves is a 2013 indie film by Miami native Kelly Reichardt, somewhat of a nomadic filmmaker who is known for couch-hopping in between teaching jobs and rallying casts and crews for ambitious projects on the doormat of the wilderness.
The film poster struck me for its minimalism—a simple all-caps black-and-white text for the title and an image of a canoe surrounded by reflective water. I am often drawn to introspective, character-based films in which an individual is immersed into a new world and changes in some way as a result of that experience. I am also particularly moved by films that feature characters engaged with landscapes, both beautiful and haunting either sub-textually or explicitly. I had a feeling that this film would roughly fit that profile, and it certainly did.
Night Moves centers around three characters in the Applegate Valley of Oregon—Jesse Eisenberg as Josh, a virtually silent, brooding man from an self-sustaining family of eco-farmers, a now-teenaged Dakota Fanning as Dena, an energetic and passionate, yet naïve college dropout from a rich upbringing, and Peter Saarsgard as Harmon, a mysterious ex-Marine who has a shady past life. These characters rally around a single cause motivated by an extreme hatred of industrialized America—to detonate a bomb that will destroy a dam that is negatively impacting the environment. The three characters get far in over their heads and have the embrace the consequences of their actions in a slow build-up. The film remains focused on the psychology of the characters rather than any explicit political agenda, remaining elegiac, meditative, and ambiguous. The story really centers around Josh, who begins as a down-to-business, yet enigmatic, figure, who struggles with his radical views and actions and those of his family and friends, as well as mounting paranoia about the society around him.
Jeff Grace’s score is effective in capturing this sense of dark introspection. The score is minimal—Grace limits himself to an ambient palette of piano, reverb-drenched electric guitars, Rhodes keyboard, effects, and synth pads reminiscent of Brian Eno, Jeff Nichol’s film composer David Wingo, or Soderbergh’s Cliff Martinez. He typically stays away from melodic material. His score gives an overriding sense of melancholy, barrenness, and harmonic ambiguity, matching well with the extended scenes of wooded mountains, dark roads and rivers, and shots that delve deep into Josh’s personal world. His language is mostly open, using fifths with slight voice-leading motion against an ambient world of sound effects. Simultaneously they place us in this cold Oregon wilderness and inside the silently screaming world of the characters’ psychologies. The score is surprisingly calm and static, demonstrating well the power of simple washes of color and how they can build tension. Despite the overall ambience and lack of thematic development throughout the score, there is a unifying, recurring theme, played by a twangy guitar.
A few scenes and instances stand out in my mind for their use of, or lack of, score. First, the opening titles and establishing shots—they don’t have a peep of music, setting a minimalist vibe. The first musical sound is the expositional use of piano, when Reichardt reveals that Josh lives on a farm dotted with yurts and often walks through the woods on his own in stoic admiration of nature (or silent hatred of the outside world—we don’t know since Eisenberg is so stone-faced and quiet). The piano here is organic, lightly outlining an odd theme over a soft pedal. Grace consistently avoids the third of chords, instead focusing on fourths, fifths, and sevenths to bring out the haziness and inconclusiveness of the character. Later in the film, Grace neglects the piano for the guitar and synths, keeping to the same rough musical content—pedals with a rough minor tonality. This may or may not be a conscious choice, but to me it reflects a degree of moral ambiguity and doubt in the three characters during and after their act of eco-terrorism. It creates a moody wash that, without directly saying anything, helps us feel what Josh and Dena are experiencing—a mixture of guilt, fear of punishment, isolation, and loneliness, and other unspeakable feelings. Grace summarizes these feelings with this use of the reverb-drenched, delayed guitar sounds, suggesting a bouncing hollow space.
A bizarre use of music is the instances of “source” music at the sauna in which Dena works. A single, soft ethnic flute pervades. At the beginning when we first see Dena at work, it blends, creating a sound corollary for a strange sauna full of naked old people. But when we hear this same music in the tense final chase scene near the end of the film, it creates an ironic dichotomy that only enhances the tension of the scene, especially against the tense high buzzes, shimmers, and "music-concrete" attacks and drips.
Another standout scene is when the three characters first set out on the boat, which is filled with explosives, across the lake, dragging the canoe behind them. The sequence is enriched by cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt’s abstract shots of submerged tree stumps and children playing in the foreground against the “bomb-boat” and distant mountains. Here, the guitar music takes a step into the foreground, with its eerie swells and slightly more dissonant harmonies. It is supplemented by light bouncy percussion and touches of distortion. Again, the music here is echoing both the external environmental world and what’s going on inside the minds of the characters. The tension and gravity of their decision to bomb the dam is weighing in, as well as a sense of overwhelming nervousness and anxiety—will their plan work out? That, coupled with the barren trees and children playing—what a bizarre, almost Bergman-esque environment.
A final scene I’ll mention is a relatively short scene, yet a perfect example of the calm tension that Jeff Grace creates against Eisenberg’s mounting paranoia. Josh is driving alone at night and is pursued but a blurry pair of tailgating headlights. He gets increasingly nervous, abruptly pulling over. Grace’s music is calm, with inactive, awkwardly phrased guitar arpeggios adding a prickly sense of reserved anxiety against the occasional low bass drone and percussive effect. There is more tension in the use of space and the quality of the timbre than there is in the traditional repeating 8th note ostinati or orchestral flourishes.
Ultimately, Grace's score to Night Moves is not a profoundly interesting or groundbreaking work, but it perfectly sets the mood and assists the drama on screen rather than detracting from it. It is understated, calm, cool, and slow, like the film itself. I’ll certainly be checking out some more of Jeff Grace’s scores in the near future. I would definitely recommend the film.
To check out more of Jeff’s work, visit http://www.jeffgrace.net/.