By today's standards, Night Moves is a slow-burn, character driven thriller, or what some might call atmospheric, or opaque. In other words, most audiences today will see it as too arty and self-indulgent, when in fact the film is precisely built around the premise that defined nearly all of the original great suspense pictures: psychology and paranoia are what get peoples' nerves bubbling, not fast paced, brainless action. Audiences today have by and large been sold a false idea of what a thriller is, and yet when you're raised on something that's false, you tend to believe it. Sure, there are plenty of thrills one can get out of the next Liam Neeson adventure, yet they pale in comparison to what can be accomplished when a filmmaker possesses that wonderful virtue of patience.
Had Night Moves been released back in the 1970s, it would have probably been a hit, especially considering its environmentalist plot concerning three eco-terrorists and their plot to blow up a dam. And there's pretty much no doubt that that was a decade writer/director Kelly Reichardt had specifically in mind when making the film, especially considering that it shares the same title as one of the all-time great paranoid thrillers from that era, Arthur Penn's 1975 Night Moves with Gene Hackman.
The key here is understanding that suspense does not need to be narrowed down to high-octane energy or extreme situations of peril. As a result, scenes like that in which Dakota Fanning's Dena goes to buy 500 pounds of fertilizer that she and her accomplices (played by Jessie Eisenberg and Peter Sarsgaard) plan on building a bomb with produce a level of excitement uncommon among today's thrillers. The viewer simply must submit to the pacing and psychology of the characters rather than have (as is too prevalent today) those elements submit to them.
That said, by Reichardt's standards, Night Moves isn't nearly as cryptic as her previous works; it's refreshing to see a filmmaker move forward, even if it means forgoing an opaque sense of mystery for genre trends. The film isn't terribly surprising in getting where it needs to go, but it's all handled with such conviction and efficiency by Reichardt and her cast (Eisenberg is particularly surprising here, departing from his usual quirks for a dark intensity we've never seen from him before) that, until a rather silly climax, we never feel we're being sold short.