Kelly Reichardt hasn’t made a lot of money at the box office. Her films Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff were art-house fare that pulled in a combined total of about $3 million US. But they got noticed.

Reichardt is now what could be called a critics’ darling for her low-budget, seemingly minimalist movies that use sparse dialogue yet contain enough existential weight to fill a library with pages. Whether it’s a story of a lost dog and her even more lost owner (Wendy and Lucy), or an historical yarn about America’s unromantic frontier past (Meek’s Cutoff), Reichardt’s films — in their very form, in addition to their choice of themes — defy Hollywood expectations.

But her latest film defies a lot more than that. A tilt toward genre, Night Moves could almost be considered a thriller if it didn’t look and behave more like a landscape painting, with its wide angles and long, static scenes.

Jesse Eisenberg and Dakota Fanning star as two idealistic young people looking to make a positive difference in the world. The problem is, they decide the best course of action is to blow up a dam, which puts the sharp edge of moral responsibility to the movie’s carotid and holds it there for the duration.

But ask Reichardt about the sword she wields, the message she is trying to convey with her explosive content, and she shrugs — diverting the flow into a discussion of process. She talks about the great team she has developed over the years that allows her creative freedom. She explains the great care she takes in composing each frame, going so far as to work in tandem with a landscape painter on the storyboards.

And she also explains how important it is to do real research.

“When you go on an outing, you come back with information or you meet someone that helps you figure out a character or how something should look. It’s funny: I teach film and the biggest hurdle is trying to convince my students that doing research is not going on Google,” says Reichardt. “Sitting in a room and Googling something is taking out the experience part, and it’s in the experience of research that all kinds of stuff happens. You just get thrown into worlds you wouldn’t otherwise be in, and to me, that is probably the most interesting part of filmmaking.”

That Reichardt, wearing a woolly sweater and Wallabees, looks a little like a character off the set of Portlandia shouldn’t be surprising. She splits her time between Oregon and New York, and twice a year, drives across the wasteland of franchise restaurants and chain stores that is the Interstate. The experience offered a hint of inspiration.

“I’ve done that drive for years; you won’t see any untouched territory. And if you want something outside the Applebees and the Taco Bells and the Motel 6, the chains of mediocrity, it’s almost impossible. I mean if you are going to take down all the wilderness and put s — t up, at least put better s — t up,” she says with a smile.

“It’s all so crappy. And everyone thinks it’s okay. And I am just, like, so taken aback at the level that everyone is satisfied with: the mediocrity of it all. It just feels like there is so much of it.”

She stops. Reichardt really didn’t want to go here.

“I can’t give you want you want,” she says matter-of-factly. “There are things that have to be said but I would rather someone more well-versed and well-read said them.”

“A movie is a series of reveals, essentially, and then you’re supposed to sit in a room and tell someone what it all means. And that goes against everything I just worked for. So I have no interest in summing it all up. I’m just laying it all out there,” she adds.

“And to be honest, this whole process of talking about a film makes me feel like I know my film less and less the more I talk about it.”

Reichardt sighs with a grin.

“The ideas that we were wrestling with were: ‘Hey, maybe this isn’t the right thing to do, but then what the f — k is the right thing to do? And what is radicalism? Is radicalism going out and blowing up a dam? Or is radicalism putting up a dam that stops all the fish from going through, and then sucking them all up in a vacuum and putting them in the back of a truck and driving around the dam and putting them back in the f — king water? Like which of those things is more radical?”

She keeps going. “And then, there is the question of people’s motives and do motives count? Like if you have a good intention and your heart is pure, but you do something that is reckless, is it worse than if you have a self-serving intention? And I am interested in how the individual acts alone as opposed to in a group … and gee, what is the punishment for young idealism and should anybody have it. Is it allowed? Is there room for it? That’s a good question.”

Reichardt takes a breath and lets silence fill the air. “Let’s say I’m not the most optimistic person, but people who will lie down to stop a truck from knocking down a forest … I am glad they are out there. But I don’t have their idealism. I don’t see how you stop it: There is just so much money and so little room for protest, and so little room for differing ideas to get through.”