The first time I saw Arthur Penn’s 1975 film Night Moves, it boggled my mind. I don’t mean that in a methaphorical way, as in, “I didn’t know how such a great film could be made.” I mean that I had no idea what I had just seen. What’s more, I saw it with a bunch of my friends — all really smart people. And no one knew what took place in the film. So about a decade ago, I watched it again. And I got it: it’s about this big criminal conspiracy to import art treasures, and how it all goes to hell. Well, I watched it again over the weekend.
Having seen it twice, I was clear on the plot. This allowed me to get into what the film is really all about: the futility — even the tragedy — of the search for the truth. But that’s “truth” writ large. The film is downright sentimental when it comes to two people with a personal relationship who get past their nonsense and start being truthful with each other. And themselves! And that’s how this movie works so brilliantly as a modern tragedy. The main character, Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman), thinks there is a big truth “out there” that will explain the world. There isn’t.
A classic trope of drama is the character who must learn the truth. In real life, such a character is insane. But there really is no easier way to get the reader or viewer to the end than this character. Otherwise, the character needs to be motivated every step of the way. If the character has a compulsion, however, it all makes sense. But in the cinematic world of the late 1960s and early 1970s, it does not make sense, because the world itself doesn’t make sense. The world is just a muddle, and we get snapshots of the truth from various angles.
A total of seven people die in Night Moves. And only two of them would have died, had Moseby just left it alone. And the film doesn’t explain if the two other deaths were murders or just unfortunate accidents. I choose to see them as accidents, because it heightens the tragedy of it all. But I think for screenwriter Alan Sharp, it is meant to be both unknown and unknowable. So Moseby is left having picked up a few snapshots of the truth: he knows these stunt people are involved with illegal imports of ancient Mexican artifacts, and he knows that Paula had ulterior motives when she slept him. And that’s about it.
At the end, Moseby doesn’t know the truth about the two deaths that he isn’t culpable in, and he doesn’t know what Paula’s true feelings towards him are. His search for the truth reveals the most unfulfilling facts. And even worse, these facts only lead to deeper questions. Even at the end, the great reveal — the mastermind who would be to blame for everything in a normal film — shows him slipping away, yelling to Moseby, but unheard. What was he saying? Was he explaining The Truth — the great narrative of the world that Moseby desperately wants to hear? Certainly not. But as The Truth slips away, Moseby wants to hear it. Because after an hour and a half and all those deaths and the breakthrough with his wife, Moseby hasn’t learned a thing.