Hal Hartley’s deadpan comedies assail American culture in a distinctive voice that only seems to strengthen with age.
Hartley’s style first came to prominence with 1997’s “Henry Fool,” the tale of a self-involved garbage man-cum-novelist (Thomas Jay Ryan) who romances the hapless Fay Grim (Parker Posey). Whereas that movie poked fun at literary aspirations, plot-heavy 2006 sequel “Fay Grim” grappled with a post-9/11 world in which the elusive Henry became a wanted terrorist. Concluding with Fay taking the fall for Henry and winding up behind bars, the story set the stage for a third character to take prominence in this idiosyncratic indie franchise — the couple’s son, Ned (Liam Aiken), whose time has come to wrestle control of the messy situation.
With “Ned Rifle,” Hartley brings this eccentric trilogy to a close, centering on Henry and Fay’s forlorn son as yet another template for skewering American sensibilities. The result consolidates the appeal of Hartley’s work into a savvy group of irreverent moments and satiric asides that somehow manage to resonate on an emotional level as well. Hartley’s writing engenders the unique feeling of a familiar touch that still manages to surprise you. “Ned Rifle” excels at that effect.
Both cynical and sweet, with a lot on its mind, “Ned Rifle” picks up several years after “Fay Grim,” with Posey’s character spending her days behind bars and Ned aging into young adulthood under the care of Reverend Daniel Gardner (Martin Donovan), who has inadvertently turned Ned into a Jesus freak. Seen in the opening shot on one knee praying for help, Ned extracts his understanding of the previous movie’s events with an understandable degree of frustration, announcing his intentions of tracking down his dad and killing the man for destroying the rest of the family.
The ensuing off-kilter adventure finds Ned traveling to New York, where he crosses paths with another staple of the series, Fay’s steely-eyed brother Simon (James Urbaniak), and discovers a mysterious young grad student named Susan (Aubrey Plaza), who harbors dubious motives. A wide-eyed and possibly lunatic character simultaneously stalking Simon, ghost-writing Fay’s memoirs and obsessed with Henry’s legacy, the always-fascinating Plaza embodies the ultimate super-fan of Hartley’s universe. It’s a delightfully weird turn for Plaza, whose derangement epitomizes Hartley’s talent.
Citing overindulgent literary theories and minutiae from the Grim/Fool family past, Susan catches Ned off-guard by representing everything he resents about his father’s recklessness even as the young man finds her enthusiasm oddly alluring, which is exactly the paradox at the root of this fascinating series about the uneasy temperaments of modern times.
As usual, it takes some time to settle into the unorthodox cadences of Hartley’s dialogue, often spoken as if it were written in air quotes. But unlike the overly ponderous and meandering “Fay Grim,” every scene in “Ned Rifle” pushes the narrative forward, and with time these unsmiling eccentrics become familiar once again.
With Ned tracking down his father to a mental asylum and struggling to keep the hustling older man from controlling his life, plot ingredients continue to complicate the picture with a series of unexpected twists. But where they go matters less than how they got there.
Hartley, who also composed the lively, sophisticated score, crafts a world that mirrors our own while punctuating its more extreme problems. When Ned announces his intentions of killing his father, the priest merely responds, “I was going to say, ‘Go in peace,'” rather than trying to intervene. With such remarkable economy, Hartley frames the uncertainties in his story that have allowed Henry to get away for so long. Ned is an invasive force.
Which doesn’t make “Ned Rifle” into a dour affair. When Ned finds Simon in New York — after dealing with a concierge played by filmmaker Bob Byington, whose work is very much in the Hartley tradition — he finds his uncle intent on a new career as a comedian. Simon’s acting coach spouts the tagline “Think funny!,” which is itself something of a punchline, because Hartley’s humor regularly catches us off-guard.
Ultimately, the focus comes down to Henry’s recurring destructive tendencies — once again embodied by Ryan with a lively mixture of snark and intelligence — as they lead to unethical circumstances that only enhance Ned’s rage. The worst thing about Henry is that he feels no remorse. Told “You’re incorrigible,” he replies, “Thank you.” But Ned manages to confront Henry’s failings the only way possible: by rejecting them.
The movie climaxes with a weird reveal that — like many trilogies — refers to previously unknown events from earlier in the series. But even as this abrupt development pushes the absurd narrative to its limit, the plot arrives at a natural destination. The poetic rhythm with which Hartley brings a trilogy of activity to an end is a tight, gripping farewell gesture.
With Ned, the trilogy shifts to a genuine hero in spite of his flawed intentions. Simply for his desire to set things right, Ned becomes the most level-headed figure in the history of this unique franchise. Hartley’s voice echoes in his creations, though as they speak they take on lives of their own. “Ned Rifle” ends with everyone finding closure, but lets his character make the final call.
“Ned Rifle” opens this week in New York and Los Angeles. It is also available on Vimeo On Demand.