VENICE - I didn't intend to wait four days to review "Night Moves" -- not least because, in the wake of her last three features, a toothpaste commercial directed by Kelly Reichardt would be high on the year's most-anticipated list -- but the combination of cumulative screenings and the slackening effects of illness kept pushing it unintentionally down the to-do list.

Yet if any film on the Lido this year belongs on the back burner, it's this one. That may be the lousiest compliment I've given a good film all year, but it's a compliment nonetheless; for the more time Reichardt's latest has to let its calculatedly flat terrors work on the brain, the more imposing and guileful an achievement it seems. "Night Moves" is a pretty slow burner while it's on the screen; off it, it's stubbornly inextinguishable, the trick birthday candle of this year's Venice fest.

That's already three fire metaphors too many for a film that itself never feels quite up to body temperature. Even its three highly recognizable leads look unfamiliarly sallow and freeze-dried -- a real-world "Twilight" ensemble without all that fussy eyeliner. And if none of this sounds like poster-ready praise, so be it: "Night Moves" is a film that lives or dies by its chilliness, its reticence, its small but nut-hard surfaces, dealing as it does with individuals who have no inclination to explain or excuse their most questionable decisions. It's a moral film, but not a moralistic one; unfailingly human, but not always humane.

Certainly, even amid the soured, toughened ensemble of "Meek's Cutoff," Reichardt has never presented us with characters quite as hard to like as this central trio. Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) and Deana (Dakota Fanning) are a pair of environmental activists seeking more heroic fulfilment than the granola virtuousness offered by their positions at, respectively, a farming commune and a hippy-crystal spa. You can hardly blame them for wanting to get away from this talk-over-action world, wickedly satirized by Reichardt and regular co-writer Jon Raymond in early scenes of excruciating student enviro-conferences.

At no point does their alternative plan -- to blow up a local Oregon dam, as a tough-love demonstration to their fellow man of his excessive consumption of natural resources -- sound like a sensible or admirable idea. We certainly don't warm to the scheme with the addition to their outfit of opaque, ex-military explosives expert Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), whose reasons for participating don't even seem misguidedly principled.

Guy Lodge is a South African-born critic and sometime screenwriter. In addition to his work at In Contention, he is a freelance contributor to Variety, Time Out, Empire and The Guardian. He lives well beyond his means in London.