Point and Shoot
by Jeff Reichert

Ned Rifle
Dir. Hal Hartley, U.S., Possible Films

[Warning: This review contains multiple spoilers.]

“So, you think it’s okay for me to be unpopular?” asks the reclusive poet Simon Grim in Hal Hartley’s Ned Rifle. Simon, for those who’ve forgotten and the many more who never knew, is the garbageman-turned-Nobel-Prize-winning poet created by Hartley for Henry Fool, and played by James Urbaniak in that film, Fay Grim, and now Ned Rifle, the conclusion of the trilogy. Ned finds a Simon who’s grown a little thicker in the neck and given up writing the scatological experimental verse that made his name in favor of a comedy blog where he posts videos of his nascent standup routines. (He hasn’t abandoned his trademark name-tagged garbageman jumpsuit.) Since Simon was created for a work that dealt with questions of artistic influence and success, it’s tempting to read him as a Hartley stand-in, especially given how the marginalization of his poetry over the course of the Grim series tracks well against Hartley’s own retreat to the margins—tempting, but probably too easy for a filmmaker as knowing about the border between texts and life as Hartley (i.e. his fans will recognize Ned Rifle as the alias Hartley used for his film scoring work up until Henry Fool). Even so, the answer to Simon’s question, provided by mysterious admirer Susan (Aubrey Plaza), should resound like a rallying cry for those who have stuck with Hartley through his years in the wild, many of whom likely chipped in to fund Ned Rifle via Kickstarter: “Oh, I think it’s necessary.”

Hal Hartley’s movies all feel like each other and nothing much else. They always have, and little has changed in his twelfth feature film since 1989. The rhythmic pitter-patter of Hartley’s dialogue, often uttered in rapid fire while characters career in and out of the frame, is particular to his work, as is his characters’ propensity to jump from the quotidian to the philosophical in the course of a few lines. He blocks his actors’ movements with an obsessive clockwork precision that suggests allegiance to the stage, but places his camera such that his images are often wildly, cinematically askew and edits for discontinuity, atomizing each of his shots, the dialogue overlapping the cuts often forming the only stitch. He’s incorporated smeary DV shooting when it was à la mod (The Book of Life), and by the time of Fay Grim, the extremity of his Dutch angles suggested a German Expressionist playground, but he’s a filmmaker who established a very particular aesthetic right out of the gate, and rather than expand that practice across his career has focused instead on whittling it down to a point. Ned Rifle, is, from its very first shot—of Ned (Liam Aiken), the little boy conceived by Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan) and Simon’s sister, Fay Grim (Parker Posey), now grown, bent on one knee, praying for strength to a high power above, in a canted, off-kilter composition—immediately recognizable as a Hartley film.

The uniform strength of Hartley’s voice can mask just how plastic his art can be—his filmmaking has absorbed teen romance (The Unbelievable Truth, Trust), middlebrow drama (Surviving Desire, Simple Men), noir (Amateur), experimental omnibus (Flirt), a personal summa theologica (The Book of Life), monster fable (No Such Thing), sci-fi dystopia (The Girl from Monday), and spy thriller (Fay Grim). The literarily concerned Henry Fool remains his most known work, and not undeservedly; though it’s often described as an epic, and was Hartley’s longest work to date, it’s still intimate, built from small gestures and moments in small lives. Like many of his films, it quietly showcases a lovely hyper-specificity of place—Woodside, Queens, to be exact. Henry Fool wouldn’t exist without Faust, Beckett, and Dante, but dirty vinyl siding, rusty chain-link fences, and the rumble of elevated trains are just as crucial to its DNA. It remains one of American cinema’s greatest little movies.

Like Fay Grim, Ned Rifle rushes out of the gate, doling out backstory in double time, here in the form of a mock news updates (in Henry, and especially in No Such Thing and The Girl from Monday, Hartley makes clear his disgust with mainstream media via the insertion of shoddily produced, incendiary packages), quickly intercut with scenes of Ned, living a quiet, religious life on the eve of turning eighteen. Aiken’s porcelain face, high forehead, and small, inscrutable eyes make him a perfect Hartley protagonist (he’s like a young Martin Donovan)—beautiful, something of blank, but also unreadable. The news reports that his mother, who missed connecting with Henry on an Istanbul tug bound for Odessa at the close of Fay Grim, has just been moved from an undisclosed location to a local state penitentiary to wait out the rest of a life sentence for treason. At the start of Fay, it was Simon who’d been jailed—for helping Henry escape a murder rap—and now Ned, indoctrinated into Christianity while living in witness protection and harboring a seething anger at the wreckage his father has made of the Grim family, sets out on a quest to find and kill his father.

His first stop is New York where he probes the recalcitrant Simon for information about Henry’s whereabouts and runs across Susan, a perfectly Hartley-esque femme fatale in dumpy dress and cardigan, knee highs, and always smeared red lipstick. Ned meets her in Simon’s apartment building lobby as a grad student admirer of his poems, but Fay reveals that the same Susan also seems to have been hired by a publisher to ghostwrite her autobiography. Those who’ve watched Henry Fool recently, or studied Hartley obsessively, might also intuit that she’s the “ugly and mean-spirited” thirteen year-old with whom Henry was caught “in flagrant delictum,” an act that led to a seven-year prison sentence prior to Henry Fool. Hartley allows us to piece this together fairly quickly, but it’s some time before Ned figures things out, thus he allows Susan to join him as he crosses the country to Seattle, and then onto Portland where Henry has been hiding out in a pharmaceutical lab, posing as a drug-addled test subject.

Compared to the 137-minute Henry Fool and 119-minute Fay Grim, the 85-minute Ned Rifle feels like a slip of a movie. Its scope is the most focused of the three, and it’s the lone entry in the trilogy that doesn’t have a larger bone to pick with its cultural context: Fool jabbed at the conservative movement’s obsession with artistic obscenity in the late 90s, Fay, the early aughts’ War on Terror, and while Ned takes swipes at the pharmaceutical industry, pompous graduate students, and religious chastity, Hartley doesn’t level a full assault on any of them. The film’s leanness, though not unwelcome, does give Ned something of the air of a project created to satisfy a need for symmetry, to create aesthetic closure, rather than make a wholly standalone statement. Thankfully, Hartley and his troupe (regulars like Robert John Burke, Bill Sage, and Martin Donovan show up in key supporting turns) deliver the material with brio. And Hartley’s idiosyncrasies as a screenwriter remain intact. Never does one feel like loose strands are being tied up (notably Hartley provides no last-minute reprieve for Fay), least of all in its whirlwind conclusion. Ned, having decided against committing murder himself, is left in a parking lot with Henry shot and Susan stabbed. The police near, Henry offers Ned the only fatherly advice he knows, the advice on which he’s lived his life thus far: “Run.” Ned looks down at the bleeding man while keeping his hands raised, and decides to change the fate of his unlucky family with a single word: “No.” What happens next for Ned, Fay, and Simon (and Hartley) remains an open question, but the unlikely epic of their lives now feels pleasingly closed.