Three eco-terrorists, Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), Dena (Dakota Fanning), and Harmon (Peter Saarsgaard), are tired of just talking about the environment, so they decide to blow up a dam in Oregon. After they blow up the dam, it becomes clear that their idealistic act was naïve and worthless. Their friends, unaware that Josh, Dena, and Harmon were the ones who blew the dam up, dismiss the whole thing as theater, because the river has twelve dams, so nothing has been accomplished.
As the movie progressed, it became clear that we would not see the dam being blown up. This was probably for two reasons. First, there are budgetary considerations. One gets the feeling that this is a low-budget feature, and it is simply cheaper to let us hear the sound of the explosion as they drive away from the river rather than film a spectacle. It reminded me of a guy I knew who was much younger than I and therefore used to modern movies. He was complaining about an old movie he saw once, and I quickly realized he was talking about They Live by Night (1948). He said, “These guys are planning a bank robbery, and the next thing you know, they are driving down the road listening to a news report of the bank robbery on the radio. Today, the bank robbery would be the main part of the movie.” But this was a low-budget film noir, and letting us hear about the bank robbery they just pulled off must have been cheaper than actually filming it.
However, there was something about the style and tone of the movie that also made one suspect there would be no grand, spectacular scene of the dam bursting, water pouring through the valley, tossing boats and cars every which way, and people screaming as they are pulled under the current. In fact, it is part of the basic idea of this movie that Josh and Dena never really thought things through, that it would be impossible to blow up a dam without someone being killed. They find out, as is appropriate for a story about guilt and paranoia, that someone has died at the same time we do, when they read about it in the newspaper. And the fact that it is just one person rather than several was good too. One death is enough to cause Dena and Josh to become guilt ridden. Less is more.
Unfortunately, on a couple of points, the movie could not resist a turn toward the melodramatic. First, when they get in the truck to drive away from the river, they have trouble starting it. That is such a cliché that I was hoping that wouldn’t happen before they even got in the truck. Oh well, at least they got it over with quickly.
A second point, however, was most unfortunate. Dena becomes so guilt ridden that it becomes clear that it is just a matter of time before she turns herself into the police and confesses everything. To stop her from doing this, Josh murders her. Josh tells Harmon over the phone that it was an accident, which would have been fine, if he had pushed her and she fell down and struck her head. But he strangled her, and that is not something one does accidentally. In any event, this murder accomplishes nothing. Along with some circumstantial evidence, the fact that Dena has been strangled will make it obvious to the police that Dena and Josh are the eco-terrorists they are looking for. Therefore, Josh has to take it on the lam. The murder would make sense only if it would keep anyone from knowing about the fact that they destroyed the dam. But if Josh is going to have to flee the area and go into hiding anyway, then what is the point of the murder? Better would be to simply disappear without killing Dena. In that case, whether she talked or not would not have made much difference, and if she didn’t spill her guts, the possibility would remain open for him to return.
Just as a melodramatic spectacle of a dam blowing up would not have been in keeping with the style and tone of this movie, so too was Dena’s murder out of place. But maybe the difference was budgetary after all: it doesn’t cost much to film a man strangling a woman.