I haven’t seen Hal Hartley’s Henry Fool (1997) or it’s sequel, Fay Grim (2006), but his latest, Ned Rifle, is apparently the third in a trilogy featuring at least some of the same characters. Following events of the first two movies, Ned (Liam Aiken) celebrates his 18th birthday by planning to move away from the devout Christian family with whom he has been kept in witness protection since his mother, Fay (Parker Posey) was arrested for alleged terrorist activities.
He goes on a mission to find and kill his father, Henry (Thomas Jay Ryan), whom he holds responsible for ruining Fay’s life. His journey begins with a trip to see his uncle, Simon (James Urbaniak), at which point he meets a young woman, Susan (Aubrey Plaza), who has connections to almost everyone in the family and holds a secret to their past. It’s not a spoiler to say he eventually finds his father, but it would be a spoiler to reveal the twists and turns along the way.
Ned Rifle is one of those artsy comedy movies you’d expect to come from Sundance or SXSW. How funny you find it depends on your personality, the kind of mood you’re in when you watch it, or the subject matter that it sometimes is brutal about skewering. For whichever of these it was when I saw it, I found the dialogue to be quite hilarious, with statements like, “She’s brilliant and she’s a good person, but she’s fucked up.”
Of course, the delivery helps, and everyone in the cast are perfect. Posey and Martin Donovan, who plays Reverend Gardner, are familiar faces in independent films. More recently, so is Aubrey Plaza. It’s great to have her and Posey in the same movie, but they have no scenes together. It would have been great to see the once queen of the art house passing the torch to the current and future queen.
What struck me most about the movie was the fact that Ned leaves his adopted family carrying a deep religious devotion. Amid liars, cheats and thieves, it’s a nice paradox in which to bounce around jokes. When naïve Ned leaves his PIN written with his debit card, Susan comments, “You’d think religion would teach someone how the ungodly operate.”
Henry also disparages Ned by saying, “I can’t believe that sanctimonious little church mouse is my son.” But his faith is also an opportunity for some sweet moments that reveal a lot about the characters in just a few words. When Ned tells Susan he is going to pray, she asks him to tell her how it feels. “What?” he asks. “To have someone listen,” she replies.
I enjoyed Ned Rifle. As I stated at the beginning, I’m not familiar with the previous two movies, so I don’t know how this one compares or if it’s a satisfactory conclusion for those who are. It is an extremely satisfactory conclusion for this chapter, though. It’s shocking and a little sad, but it remains true to its characters. As outrageous as it gets in the third act, it demonstrates a characteristic that good independent films often do: honesty.