Ned Rifle (2014) Film Review

Thomas Jay Ryan as Henry Fool in NED RIFLE, directed by Hal Hartley

What: Film Review
Directed, Written, and Music by: Hal Hartley
Produced by: Hal Hartley, Matthew Myers
Starring: Liam Aiken, Aubrey Plaza, Parker Posey, James Urbaniak, Thomas Jay Ryan, Martin Donovan
Language: English
Running Time (in min.): 85 minutes
Rating: R
Official Selection of the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival and the 2015 SXSW Film Festival

*****

It’s the rare threequel that defines a movie series’ success – some end up with the adulation and success of Toy Story 3 [2010], while still others receive The Godfather Part III treatment [1990] – but it should come as no surprise that Hal Hartley’s third excursion into franchise territory ranks as his Return of the King [2003]. Hartley, a master of the tragicomic and the dialogistically florid, took a risk by crowdfunding and personally promoting Ned Rifle, the concluding chapter in a set of three that began with his prize-winning Cannes selection Henry Fool [1997] and continued with 2006’s Fay Grim. Once again taking the reigns as writer, director, composer, and producer, it seems that the indie legend’s gamble will pay off when the film is released via Possible Films in U.S. theaters on April 1st, 2015 and on Vimeo-on-Demand immediately after.

Like its predecessor, which expanded on the collision between the Grim family and the vainglorious career criminal Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan) through the experiences of his wife (the inimitable Parker Posey), Ned Rifle picks up ten years after Fay, her genius brother Simon (James Urbaniak, Venture Bros), and Fay’s son Ned (Liam Aiken) were left once again stranded by the notorious Fool. This go-round, it is Ned – forced into foster care-style witness protection (with a priest’s family, no less!) in the wake of the last imbroglio – that lusts for Henry’s head, intent on avenging his mother’s destroyed life. Unfortunately, through his own naïveté and a vaguely sanctimonious Born Again morality, the young man is hampered on his God-given path by an aggressive, clearly disturbed graduate student going by Susan (Aubrey Plaza, Parks and Recreation.)

Aubrey Plaza as Susan Weber in NED RIFLE, directed by Hal Hartley

It doesn’t take Ned long to find his father or reconnect with his mother and uncle; but Hartley, ever the rhythmic imagist, takes his time exploring Susan’s troubled motives while moving Rifle’s journey from Middletown, USA to New York City to the Pacific Northwest at powerwalking, if perhaps not breakneck, pace. Working again with the editor Kyle Gilman, the filmmaker seems intent on defusing the concept of the “thriller” by layering absurdist non-sequitors (perhaps Hartley’s authorial trademark) on the brightest neo-noir aesthetic this side of Altman’s The Long Goodbye [1973]. Pepper in stalwart actors from America’s low-budg film scene and a jangly, propulsive instrumental score, and Rifle looks far less like the mystery narrative it contains and far more like a quasipolitical satire with such subjects in its crosshairs as religion, the prison system, poetry writing, and the country’s youth.

The boiling social atmosphere of post-9/11 trauma and reactionary behavior that lent Fay Grim a gnawing “Cold War era” feel has been lowered to a simmer here, though, lending Hartley’s latest a mellowed-out quality lacking in some of his more recent under-the-radar projects (I’m looking at you, My America.) Ned’s process is thankfully uncomplicated, with the film wisely avoiding herrings, twists, and turns, focusing instead on the turmoil that the now-grown patricidal vigilante faces in the outside world. Aiken’s reprisal of the role he originated at six years old is a marvel of totemic silence for someone so young, and it suits both his crumbling spirituality and his uncontainable attraction to Plaza’s Susan.

Unlike Aiken, Urbaniak, Ryan, Posey, and Hartley regular Martin Donovan as Ned’s former guardian, Plaza is new to the Fool-Grim universe, and therefore the film’s most prominent wild card (and marketing tool.) As a lipstick-smearing intellectual poseur and compulsive obsessive – prior to hitching up with Ned, she’s spent years attempting to contact Henry by stalking Simon in the wake of his being named America’s Poet Laureate – the Parks and Recreation actress here delivers perhaps her finest film work to date.

James Urbaniak as Simon Grim in NED RIFLE, directed by Hal Hartley

Once again, stellar work across the board (with Ryan sucking the air from his scenes with a vacuous electricity, and Posey as sharp as ever) will not be a shock to the writer/director’s moderate fanbase, especially those aware of his many awards and credentials. However, surprisingly little has been written about the marvel of cinematic experimentation that Ned Rifle represents, perhaps because Hartley once again worked within the confines of a minimalist budget raised on Kickstarter, or because his stylistic tics remain in plain view. Harsh Dutch angles captured by the gifted D.P. Vladimir Subotic are likely only to further endistance those viewers who find the script condescendingly eloquent, the characters insufferably talkative, and the use of blue filters “too blue.” Luckily for Hartley, whose aesthetic continues to mix-and-match Brechtian alienation techniques with unparalleled editorial and performative precision, Ned Rifle will weed out the newbies from the admirers, the auteurists from the good-time-havers – not that either crowd can be blamed.

I have another theory more to do with with our current era as a cinema-conscious society, if you’ll allow it, dear reader. Rifle’s recovery of Hartley’s many actors from their principle roles is an astonishing coup, one which he planned as producer as early as 2008 (the film was sold in 2013 and completed in 2014 before it had its World Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival). No single thinkpiece from its showings at the Berlin Film Festival’s Panorama selection or its 2015 SXSW Film Festival berth has targeted its resemblance to works by Hartley’s independent film peers: Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight [2013] and Boyhood [2014], much heralded for their invocation of passing time over decades, come specifically to mind.

It might be that Hartley’s stylistic imprimatur – more emotionally dynamic, story-based, and unsubtle than Linklater’s journeyman work, while less hostile and aggressive than Todd Solondz’s universe-spanning Happiness/Life During Wartime duo – simply refuses to go down smoothly. The great shame is that Ned Rifle marks Hartley’s return to form that, while perhaps too harsh and lumpy for the casual viewer, masks a rich intellectual journey within the physical one at the film’s center.

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