Friday 19 June 2015

Ned Rifle

To Hal And Back

Ned Rifle
USA 2015
Directed by Hal Hartley
DVD Region 2

You know, it’s always quite hard to review perfect films like the ones Hal Hartley tends to make. For many years now I’ve been citing him as my favourite living writer/director and, though I found a couple of his later shorts and one feature of his that I didn’t like as much as the others... it has to be said that he rarely disappoints and is the last word in US independent film making as far as I’m concerned. So much so that this particular movie was even funded by a Kickstarter campaign and, since I’m unaware of any screenings in this country, I had to wait for a DVD to become available from his website before I was able to see this.

Ned Rifle is a very interesting name for a feature from Hartley as many fans will know the name. He’s more often than not written the musical scores for the majority of the movies he’s directed and, again, more often than not, they’ve always been absolutely appropriate to his subject as well as being pretty good listens away from the movie... if one is actually fortunate enough to come across a release of any of them. The point is, before everybody caught on and realised it was Hartley “pulling a Carpenter” and doing the scores for his own movies, he used to use the name Ned Rifle as his compositional pseudonym... sometimes playing as part of a group with the further deviation of the name, called Ryful. Of course, everyone’s wise to all that nowadays but it was truly a full circle kind of feeling watching the opening credits of a movie called Ned Rifle with Music by Hal Hartley. Kinda made me chuckle.

Ned Rifle is a bit of a miracle for an independent movie maker because it’s actually the final part of a trilogy which he started back in 1997 with his most popular feature Henry Fool, which I saw and loved at the time of its release, either at the Lumiere Cinema in London (if it was still just about open by then) or maybe at the London Film Festival one year... I can’t remember. It was pretty self contained and had a lovely, ambiguous ending which really didn’t need any closure heaped on it. So it was pretty unusual to find that, indeed, closure did come nine years later in the form of a follow up focusing on the further adventures of Henry Fool’s wife, Fay Grim, in the movie... um... Fay Grim, in 2006.

Now, going back to my first paragraph here, it has to be said that Fay Grim was about the only feature film by Hal Hartley that I didn’t really like as much as his others. It was, as I would expect from “the greatest living director”, well made but I didn’t chuckle as much as I usually do during Hartley’s movies and I was less impressed than I’d hoped I would be. By then, though, I believe some people were saying that Fay Grim was Hal Hartley’s The Empire Strikes Back... in that there would hopefully be a ‘concluding’ part to what was shaping up to be the Henry Fool trilogy. And here it is now, in the form of Ned Rifle... another nine years after the last one.

One of the things which had impressed me about Fay Grim was the casting. In the original Henry Fool, a film where the titular character played by Thomas Jay Ryan is, maybe, a modern philosophical genius or a perverted degenerate... probably a compelling cross between the two... Fool is a catalyst for change on those about him. He eventually marries Fay Grim (played by Parker Posey), the sister of the film’s other main protagonist Simon Grim, played by James Urbaniak (you might also remember him playing comic book artist Robert Crumb in the excellent American Splendour). About three quarters of the way through that first movie they have a son, Ned, and he’s played for the last bit by a then 7 year old actor called Liam Aiken. Startingly, he returned as the 16 year old version of the same character for Fay Grim and, oh yeah... with the character’s second name changed to Rifle as part of his witness protection programme after events in that second movie, he’s back here playing the same character at 25 years of age (I guess, although he may be playing slightly younger in story years... couldn’t really tell). So he, and a lot of the regular cast from the other two, are all back for this one. Which is no mean feat.

Aiken has, of course, always been a pretty good supporting actor and he easily handles the main protagonist role in this movie, aided by Hartley’s often criticised but much loved (by this humble movie watcher), less than naturalistic dialogue. And as usual, Hartley’s writing is wonderfully performed by the various actors who, this time around, include a much loved and frequent Hartley collaborator from his early days, appearing for the first time in one of the Henry Fool films, the always watchable Martin Donovan. Here he plays a priest, which is kind of a step down in religious terms, I guess, after playing Jesus opposite Thomas Jay Ryan’s performance as the devil in Hartley’s amazing millennial movie The Book Of Life.

So this film is Ned’s story and it starts off with the revelation that he’s “found God” and so, being an unshakingly religious person, he decides to seek out the man responsible for the incarceration of his mother... his father Henry Fool... and kill him. Yeah... I guess that’s the problem with religious types, isn’t it?

Of course, this then becomes a little bit like a road movie as Ned follows the clues given to him by various old characters (and actors) from the previous movies in the trilogy, such as his mother Fay and his Uncle Simon. He’s also simultaneously aided and abetted by a character called Susan Weber, played by an actress called Aubrey Plaza, who is new to the Hal Hartley universe and seems pretty suited as a typical Hartley character... reeling off long and overtly complicated passages of his brilliant dialogue and still managing to make it all sound just about acceptable and highly comical, just the way it’s written. Actually, this character has a surprise twist revelation which, and this is my one slight criticism of this film, I feel Hartley reveals too early on in the storyline. I’m obviously not going to spoil this and tell you what it is here but what I will say is that, fans of the character Henry Fool will get a little surprise about a story element from his past turning up to haunt him... it’s a really nice touch and explores the kinds of problematic issues which are less talked about in mainstream cinema... if one can exactly call Hartley a representative of mainstream cinema these days. Though goodness knows he should be... I’ve never understood why this guy isn’t a more lionised and celebrated writer/director in his own country. The man is such a vital artist.

The film itself is typical Hartley, with crisp, witty images and the kind of strong, clean compositions you would expect from this man’s work. Beautiful, even colours create their own blocks and shapes and the director and cinematographer tend to section parts of the images off using these various shapes so that everybody gets their own little section of the screen to cleanly fit into. There’s an absolutely amazing and extreme, almost audacious culmination of this visual style at one point where the amazing Martin Donovan is sitting in the foreground of a shot in sharp focus next to a ladder. As his daughter is talking to him in the background, she moves to fill a square formed by the rungs and sides of the ladder as she does so, also in deep focus. Wow. Visual orgasm or what?

Another example is where Ned Rifle is sitting on a bed on the right of screen and Weber is lying at the other end talking to him, the shot split in half by a lampshade dividing them visually in the centre of the frame. This is great stuff and also, of course, can be seen as a visual metaphor for the divide between the lives of the two characters. The dialogue is less clever here but certainly tugs the heart somewhat as Ned says, “I have to...”. Weber finishes the sentence for him, “Pray?” “Yeah.” says Ned. Weber continues, “You have to tell me about that one day.” “What’s to tell?” asks Ned. Weber concludes the scene by responding, “How it feels to have someone listening.” The almost split screen created by the lampshade is a nice touch to augment that dialogue and it’s little moments like this which allow me to conclude, with this movie, that Hal Hartley is still a cinematic genius or, to put it another way... yeah, he’s still “got it”.

Hal Hartley’s Ned Rifle is available on iTunes and you can watch, stream and grab the DVD from the director’s website If you’ve never seen a Hal Hartley film before then this may not be the absolute best one to jump on with, being as it’s technically a sequel to two of his other movies... but you can check out a load of his other films at the website and others are available from the usual channels. If you are already a fan of Hartley you’ll definitely want to pick up a copy of Ned Rifle in whatever format is your poison... if you’ve never seen a Hal Hartley movie before but are a fan of cinema in general... well, just pick any one and get to it. I’m sure you’ll soon want to watch them all.

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