‘Ned Rifle’: Toronto Review

Ned Rifle Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

Ned Rifle Still - H 2014

A quirky and funny final chapter that will please Hartley fans the most

Aubrey Plaza stars in the third installment of Hal Hartley’s ‘Henry Fool’ trilogy

You’ve got to give credit to Hal Hartley. After breaking out onto the scene 25 years ago with The Unbelievable Truth, he’s been sticking to his guns ever since, making a dozen features characterized by his trademark deconstructed storytelling, deliberately artificial performances and offbeat deadpan humor. He’s a true independent at a time when that term no longer means much, and while his fan base hasn’t exactly grown, he’s stuck to the path that’s made him such a unique auteur.

This is clearly the case with Ned Rifle, the final chapter of a trilogy kicked off in 1997 with Henry Fool and followed by 2006’s Fay Grim, which starred Parker Posey as the titular heroine trying to clean up a mess left by her ex-lover. Posey is back this time, as are the other actors, though they’re joined here by Aubrey Plaza, cast somewhat against type as a mysterious and sultry vixen who keeps foiling everyone’s plans. She adds something different to Hartley’s usual hijinks, making for a crime dramedy that’s ostensibly quirky, but also short, sweet and quite moving.

Produced by the director via a Kickstarter campaign (which raised $400K), this low-budget effort won’t break out to widespread art house release, especially as it somewhat helps to have seen the two other movies in order to fully enjoy this one. But Plaza’s participation could give it a boost in niche distribution and VOD, while the film should find takers in those Western European territories where Hartley is still very much admired.

The end of Fay Grim found Posey’s character sentenced for life after allegedly committing a terrorist act, while her teenage son, Ned (Liam Aiken), was sent into a witness protection program. Seven years later, Ned is now old enough to be on his own, and after a rather hilarious discussion with the priest (Hartley stalwart Martin Donovan) who took care of him, he sets off on a mission to kill the man responsible for messing up everyone’s lives: his father Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan).

But before he gets there, Ned crosses paths with Susan (Plaza), a bookish femme fatale caked in mascara and draped in an overcoat (but not much else), and who has a deep-seated obsession with Henry for reasons soon to be revealed. She and Ned then head out on a trek that will take them from New York to Seattle and parts in between, during which the tension between the chaste church boy and foxy Masters student boils over, as do the various plotlines that took form in the precedent movies, leading to a denouement that will settle each character’s fate once for good.

It’s all laced with Hartley’s typically unorthodox approach, with characters reciting tongue-in-cheek philosophical banter in ways that are both remote and rather funny, while cast members old and new offer up committed performances that provide an emotional backbone to the action. Plaza is especially memorable as a girl whose eccentricities hide something darker (or so we think), while Ryan once again returns to play the gregarious, cigar-chomping blowhard who you want to hate but can’t.

Working with various returning crew, and for the first time with DP Vladimir Subotic, Hartley showcases his usual straightforward, pop-infused style, although this film is more pared down than the others, probably due to budgetary reasons. And he once again composes the score himself, mixing synths and electric guitar chords to create a brooding ambiance speckled with lightness.

While it may be hard for non-fans to adhere to this kind of filmmaking, which can keep audiences at a distance before winning them over by the end, Ned Rifle nonetheless reminds us that there’s more than one way to skin the cinematic cat, and that narrative does not always have to follow the same old rules. Or, as the poet maudit Simon (James Urbaniak) asks Susan at one point: “So you think it’s okay for me to be unpopular?” To which she bluntly replies: “I think it’s necessary.”

Production company: Possible Films, LLC
Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Liam Aiken, Martin Donovan, Parker Posey, Thomas Jay Ryan
Director, screenwriter: Hal Hartley
Producers: Hal Hartley, Matthew Myers, Jacqueline Bussie
Director of photography: Vladimir Subotic
Production designer: Richard Sylvarnes
Costume designer: Sandy Siu
Editor: Kyle Gilman
Composer: Hal Hartley
Sales agent: Fortissimo Films

No rating, 85 minutes