SXSW Film review: ‘Ned Rifle’ best of a trilogy

Aubrey Plaza in "Ned Rifle."
Aubrey Plaza in “Ned Rifle.”

Hal Hartley burst onto the independent film scene with his debut release “The Unbelievable Truth” in 1989. While he directed multiple features within the mini-major system in the 1990s (backed by companies like Miramax, Fine Line Features and Sony Pictures Classics), his work is not as revered as it should be. Unfortunately, this is because several of his best films have been out of print domestically for years.


Hartley’s latest effort is actually the third film in a trilogy that began with 1997’s “Henry Fool” and continued with 2006’s “Fay Grim.” An incredibly talented mutli-hyphenate, Hartley once again wrote, directed, produced and performed the score here, but this time around he turned to Kickstarter to fund the project.


It’s not imperative that you come to this final installment having seen the previous movies, but it will help you to flesh out all of the connections because this certainly doesn’t dwell much on the backstory. All you really need to know is that Ned Rifle (Liam Aiken, who was only 7 years old when the first feature was shot) is the son of Henry Fool and Fay Grim. Leading up to this film, Henry (Thomas Jay Ryan) has been on the run from the law, and Fay (Parker Posey) has gone to jail, serving a life sentence after being convicted as a terrorist.


We begin on Ned’s 18th birthday, learning that he’s been raised by a devoutly religious family while in witness protection. He’s decided to take off and visit his mother in jail and then go on a mission to kill his father, whom he blames for her imprisonment. Many of Hartley’s regular players return to the big screen with him, including Martin Donovan, Karen Sillas, Robert John Burke, Bill Sage and James Urbaniak (reprising his role as pornographic poet Simon Grim). Posey, who was the title character in the second film of the trilogy, takes more of a backseat this time around but still manages to steal every scene she’s in.


One notable newcomer to the series is Aubrey Plaza (from NBC’s “Parks and Recreation”), who is sublime as Susan Weber, a mysterious young woman with a secret past who is obsessed with Simon’s poems and signs on as a ghostwriter for Fay’s autobiography. In the post-film Q&A, she mentioned that she didn’t even read the script before saying yes because Hartley has always been one of her favorite filmmakers and she just wanted to work with him. It’s a much darker role than she normally plays, but still allows for comic relief.


The movie should resonate for fans, as it’s filled to the brim with Hartley’s signature dry and carefully crafted dialogue. Unlike the films before it (which were 138 minutes and 118 minutes respectively), “Ned Rifle” manages to successfully layer multiple story lines and a large cast of characters into less than 90 minutes. It’s the strongest entry of the series, displaying the quirky and vibrant essence of what makes Hartley such an essential voice in American cinema.


“Ned Rifle” screens again on Wednesday at noon at the Alamo South Lamar and again on Friday, March 20 at 10 p.m. at the Marchesa. The film opens in limited release on April 1 and will also be available that same day to rent or purchase from Vimeo On Demand.


Author: Charles Ealy

Charles Ealy edits and writes about books and movies for the Ausstin American-Statesman.

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