Published Sep 10, 2014In the '90s, Hal Hartley was an indie film God. His humble, low-budget aesthetic, his propensity for verbosity, his pseudo-indulgent (albeit hilarious) rants, his knack for blending the tender and innocent with the profane, and his persistent assertion that increased instant gratification and an overwhelmingly derivative pop culture would bring about the apocalypse echoed the countercultural (but actually cultural) ethos with perfect aplomb. In many ways, Henry Fool, the first of three films in a trilogy culminating with this film is the very epitome of American independent cinema in the '90s, reflecting a fluid socio-cultural dynamic at a time when it was at its most introspective.
And just as Henry Fool, a movie about a socially inept garbage man inspired to write by a graceless but witty and astonishingly observant failed writer, represented the decade at the height of its unabashed self-reflection, Hartley's underrated 2002 release, No Such Thing, represented the end.
Many of the themes presented in No Such Thing pop up in Ned Rifle. Though the former fantasy was more literal about its tragic depiction of the death of dreams, hope and mythology in monster form, this latter work has a similarly apocalyptic vibe, making a functional narrative out of the idea that a generation grappling with theological concepts that are ostensibly moot has little else to do but destroy those (their parents) that helped make the world what it is.
The titular Ned (Liam Aiken), in responding to the events that unfolded in Fay Grim, the second entry in this trilogy, sets out on a trip throughout America to kill his father, Henry (Thomas Jay Ryan), for his role in landing his mother (Parker Posey) in prison. Since the overriding theme here is making amends for past mistakes and confronting a future defined by past regressions and failed opportunities, another mishap from Henry's past is thrown into the mix in the form of an ambitious, obsessive grad student named Susan (Aubrey Plaza).
Ned and Susan mix like oil and water. Ned, a chaste, humourless, hyper-religious vessel of solipsistic rage is, in part, perturbed by — in a subtly misogynist way that reinforces his theological beliefs — Susan's vast intellect and unapologetically salacious demeanour. But, given that this dynamic (Amateur was about a nun sustaining herself with sex work while waiting for a message from God) is virtually a necessity in the world of Hartley, they continue their journey together given their mutual need to find Henry. While Ned's motives are crystal clear from the outset, Susan's are decidedly less lucent.
In essence, Henry, a functional alcoholic that has convinced a team of psychiatrists that he believes he's the devil, is very much the monster from No Such Thing. He's the sort of character that would opine about the most refined of literature while engaging in watersports with a pregnant hooker; in fact, Ned was conceived on a bathroom floor after a bout of intense coffee-fuelled diarrhoea. He's the sort of contradiction that overwrought political correctness would quash and a culture of instant celebrity would negate. As such, the idea of killing him, of ridding the world of the sort of problematic paradox that inspires creativity, is representative of the end of many things, even beyond the simple notion of mortality.
Thematically, the somewhat defeatist template is reiterative of Hartley's career auteur trajectory, wherein he points out that stupidity and convenience will eventually be the death of us all. It's a valid perspective and one that Hartley has mastered discussing and analyzing with simultaneously hilarious and insightful rants. Aesthetically, Ned Rifle feels like an accompaniment piece to Henry Fool, having the same flat direction and moderately theatrical, declarative style, where speechifying is prioritized over visual stimulation. It's also just as consistently laugh-out-loud funny as Fool, eschewing the darker tone of Grim in favour of bringing everything back to its beginnings (even in the gauche '90s CBS procedural font used during the title sequence).
In most respects, Ned Rifle is a nearly perfect way for Hartley to wrap up this trilogy, but its existence is a tad problematic unto itself. Save those already familiar with — and appreciative of — the American auteur's particular style, it's hard to imagine anyone having much appreciation for a work like this. It's also hard to imagine where Hartley might go from here. If he, like the underground writer Simon Grim (James Urbaniak), is destined to be mostly forgotten — a dusty book in a library in a world addicted to YouTube — then where does a film like this stand and what purpose does it serve? Will a guileless journalist travel to Iceland to find him anytime soon?