Screened as part of a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Hal Hartley retrospective at Melbourne’s ACMI theatre, this long-awaited 85-minute sequel dishes up everything we’ve come to expect from the idiosyncratic New Yorker.
Wrapping up a series that started almost 20 years ago was always going to be a challenge, particularly when the middle chapter, FAY GRIM (2006) was met with such mixed reviews, but here we are 10-years down the track at the conclusion. So, is it actually any good?
Following the (frankly outlandish but fun) scenario in FAY GRIM, Fay Grim (Parker Posey) has spent four years in a correctional facility while her husband Simon (James Urbaniak) has been in hiding. Their only child, Ned (Liam Aiken), has been raised in a Christian household to which he hold no connection but as soon as he’s able he sets out on a mission to find and kill his father for destroying his mother’s life, but when the troublesome Susan (the delightful Aubry Plaza) arrives on the scene things begin to get complicated, again.
A great deal of Hartley’s charm comes from his quirky, intellectual musings, but more so from his freakish ability to ground those musings with solid emotional underpinnings. His films are almost always about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances told in a matter-of-fact deadpan way. When they work (Simple Men, The Unbelievable Truth) they are minor works of unadulterated film genius; when they don’t (FLIRT) they are excruciating.
NED RIFLE, thankfully, fall into the previous category. It’s a much smaller film than the 2.5-hour opus that was its prequel HENRY FOOL, but regardless of it’s brevity, NED RIFLE is surprisingly moving and ultimately exceptionally sweet.
Hartley’s trademark stylistic preferences are front and center but he still has the presence of mind to keep them in check (he doesn’t always). There are times where NED RIFLE is like watching a stage performance; it’s all about the space and how the performers move through it, in and around it and with each other, and most certainly not about how the camera moves. It’s stoic in it’s form and execution but the design is most certainly integral to the finished product. Like the best of Hartley, NED RIFLE feels considered.
The regulars show up and don’t miss a beat, slipping back into their former skins comfortably but it's the latest additions to the series, Plaza and Aiken that leave the greatest impressions. One can only imagine that Harltey’s specificities would either cause a player to flourish or dissolve but both rise to the occasion and hold their own against some well seasoned pros.
It would be a shame if NED RIFLE were to be the last time we meet Hartley’s most charming and enduring creations, particularly now that the series - and Hartley - have had a fresh gust of wind put in their sails. If it is to be that way then RIFLE is a decent way to go out, but if it’s not, then hurry up and bring on the fourth instalment, post haste.