By this point, you’re either a Hal Hartley devotee, or you’re not. The fiercely independent filmmaker established his unique voice on films like “Trust,” “Flirt,” and “The Unbelievable Truth,” and forged an offbeat indie genre unto himself (though it’s never been in vogue). And for most of his career, Hartley’s stayed far away from the studio system (2001’s underrated “No Such Thing” being an exception). In 1997, the filmmaker arguably reached the peak of his critical acclaim with “Henry Fool,” walking away from the Cannes Film Festival with a Best Screenplay award. It was perhaps the sharpest, most hilarious representation of the filmmaker’s distinctly offbeat aesthetics—his deadpan tone, the arch theatrically heightened mise en scene—and he wasn’t done with those characters and that world. Nine years later he returned with the sequel “Fay Grim,” a far less successful effort (though one that’s actually underrated). And eight years on from that, Hartley closes the quirky saga with “Ned Rifle,” which slightly improves on the predecessor but doesn’t come close to the freshness of the movie that started it all.
If you’re new to this world, you may be a bit lost, as Hartley picks up where “Fay Grim” left off with little prologue to recap the events thus far. Fay (an always game Parker Posey) has been serving her life sentence for allegedly committing a terrorist act, while her son Ned (Liam Aiken), is getting ready to leave the Witness Protection Program. During her incarceration, Ned had been raised and cared for by a Christian family—lead by Martin Donovan, a troubled priest—and subsequently taken on their religious values. But Ned has one simple plan as he enters adulthood and normal life: he plans to track down his father, Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan), and kill him for ruining his mother’s life (Fool being part of the alleged terrorist machinations that ends “Fay Grim”).
The journey takes the young man to Seattle where Henry is rumored to be hiding out. And it’s also where acclaimed, genius writer Simon Grim (James Urbaniak), Fay’s brother, now hangs his hat and made his left turn career decision. The former Poet Laureate is now trying his hand at online comedy, realizing that he can potentially reach a bigger audience with laughter than with this poetry. In addition to catching up with his uncle, Ned crosses paths with Susan (Aubrey Plaza), an alluring young woman, who has written her dissertation about the work of Simon Grim — particularly that which references the notorious Henry Fool. Together, Ned and Susan hit the road to track down Henry, each hiding the ulterior motives for finding the outlaw from each other; everything concluding in a third act that ties up the fates of these characters in genuinely surprising ways.
But getting there isn’t always the arch, witty ride Hartley wants it to be. While his trademark cadences and extended philosophical jags are in plentiful supply, the cast competently knocking out the tricky dialogue. “Ned Rifle” doesn’t lack able performers or a committed vision from the writer/director (Plaza for one, slides effortlessly into his ensemble of regulars). But three movies in, what made “Henry Fool” so foul, delightful and insightful the first time around feels like diminishing returns in the third movie. There is a freshness to “Henry Fool,” it’s still easily the superior film of the trilogy. And the pleasure in its provocation, and boldness in its sensibility is something Hartley hasn’t managed to recapture in his subsequent sequels. That said, the filmmaker has created characters and a world that is compelling enough that you’re still engaged in their fates.
But as we said from the start, you’ll like have to be Hartley aficionado already to get any enjoyment here; his delightful odd duck tone is definitely not for the novice. And if you’re dipping your toes into his work for the first time, it’s best to start with his earlier efforts. The crowdfunded “Ned Rifle” distances itself further from non-Hartley heads with its sometimes distractingly low production values.
Unlike some of his contemporaries such as Whit Stillman, Jim Jarmusch, Richard Linklater or Steven Soderbergh, Hartley — for better or worse — has steadfastly remained committed to telling the kind of stories only he can come up with in the same idiosyncratic manner. Minor flirtations with more mainstream material aside, he hasn’t chased his muse to television, or packaged projects to try and broaden his appeal. And he’s fine with that. “Speaking for myself, I just knew my work wasn’t appealing to a mass audience,” he recently told Indiewire. “Do you really want to go to all that trouble to make a piece that’s bigger but not seen by everybody?” And so, Hartley has made a smaller piece, one that closes the books on what are some of his finest comic character creations to date. The mileage will vary depending on how you’ve felt about the progression of the series so far, but if you’re even mildly curious to find out what awaits the outrageous and exasperating Henry Fool, “Ned Rifle” is worth making some time for. [B-]