Ned Rifle review

Hal Hartley‘s Ned Rifle completes a trilogy that began with 1997’s Henry Fool. At the time, Fool cemented Hartley’s reputation as a key figure in independent American film, and an artist with his own, very specific voice.

In that first film of the series, Hartley introduces the dysfunctional Grim family before sending them into disarray with the arrival of the titular Henry (Thomas Jay Ryan). Along his way, Henry encourages the garbage man Simon Grim (James Urbaniak) to become a poet, and sleeps with his sister Fay (Parker Posey).

In the second film, Fay Grim, we spend more time with Fay and with Ned Rifle, the child born of her pairing with Henry in the first.  It’s now the third instalment that puts his character centre stage, and into the title.

The characters in Hartley’s films often drive things along with the dialogue, their deliberately affected performances delivering line after line that’s loaded with philosophical pondering or deadpan humour. While this was also true of Fay Grim, the film was definitely something of a departure from Henry Fool, both in terms of subject matter, being a riff on espionage thrillers, and, to some degree, its aesthetics. While Hartley’s arch and unusual approaches were well deployed in Grim, the choice of genre alone seemed enough to alienate some of this fans.

But now, Ned Rifle is an obvious return to the Hartley material that many had grown to love and expect. Those already on side with the director will most like fall head over heels for this new film; Ned Rifle represents Hartley operating on homeground and without restraint.

The film opens with Fay in prison, following the events of the last film. Ned is living in witness protection with a Christian family and a Reverend played by Hartley regular Martin Donovan. It’s Ned’s ambition to track down and kill his father, Henry Fool, blaming him for everything that has gone wrong for the family and the imprisonment of his mother.

Upon hearing Ned’s plans as he’s about to leave, the Reverend comments “I was going to say ‘Go in peace.'”

It’s a great example of Hartley’s skill at writing dialogue, but also at directing actors. It’s simplistically comedic but dry and witty, both on the page and in delivery.

When Ned heads out on his mission, we find ourselves in a road movie of sorts. He travels to meet his mother, then his brother and to look for his father. Along the way he encounters Susan (Aubrey Plaza), who seems to have an obsession with the Grims and also perhaps with Henry.

Plaza is just wonderful in the role, and Hartley’s camera finds it easy to adore her, with the filmmakers finding many interesting ways to frame Plaza’s highly expressive face and subtly off-kilter physical performance. She’s also highly adept at dealing with Hartley’s trickier, most heavily sardonic dialogue. In one scene she reels off what sounds like an entire literary thesis without taking a breath, and it’s as impressive and marvelous as it is comical.

Though they’ve teamed up to look for Henry, both Ned and Susan are hiding their true intentions. Ned finds it easy to judge Susan for this, but doesn’t recognise the same duplicity in his own actions. This gives Aiken a number of difficult scenes where he must convey the restraint of internalising emotions or desire, and he does a fine job.

It’s been a nice bonus of the series’ structure that we can see Aiken develop as an actor, playing the same character at a different age in each of the films.

Those who recall the first two instalments well enough may be able to get ahead of a couple of the plot twists, though we are ultimately taken towards a more surprising climactic revelation that satisfyingly ties up not just this film but the whole trilogy.

It’s a particularly wicked finale, and recalls the undercurrent of provocation and foulness of Henry Fool. But there’s also the sadness that one can often feel for Hartley’s characters, and here he will send both a chill up your spine and a tear down your cheek.

Hartley is on top form as a screenwriter, a director and as the composer of the score. He also demonstrates how he’s lost none of the bite of his earlier work.

Ned Rifle will have its European premiere at the Berlin Film Festival this week and will be released in the US this spring.