Hal Hartley is the master of astringent whimsy and scathingly erudite satire. No better examples of his talents are to be found than HENRY FOOL (1997) and its follow-up, FAY GRIM (2007). Both deal with a character, Henry (Robert John Burke), who may or may not be the devil inserting himself into the desperately dull lives of the Grim family. Brother Simon (James Urbaniak), the garbage man with expectations of life so modest that they may not exist, his sister Fay (Parker Posey) is a woman whose longings for something, anything, else are manifested in singularly unimaginative bouts of carnal and alcoholic excess. They both fall under Henry’s spell and the results change their lives while leaving Henry exactly where he would rather not be. The story so far of this existentially unpredictable trio has seen a meteoric literary career, an unplanned pregnancy, and, finally, an assault on society provoked by angst and executed for love.
As we begin NED RIFLE, the third part of the trilogy, Henry is missing, Fay is serving a life sentence for domestic terrorism, and Simon, still wearing the uniform of his days as a sanitation engineer, has retreated from the accolades of being the poet laureate into the pursuit of stand-up comedy. Henry and Fay’s son, the eponymous Ned (Liam Aiken), is turning 18 and leaving behind the cleric’s family that has lovingly fostered him in pursuit of the father who abandoned him. Though embracing the religious fervor of his foster family, right down to a clerical cast to his lay apparel and his frequent prayer, his goal is to kill his father for the older man’s sins. One might take that, and surely that is Hartley’s intention, as youthful enthusiasm coupled with the impetuous nature of youth that that is too easily caught upin an idee fixe, hence coupling Ned’s careful planning with his reckless behavior.
He is joined in his quest by Susan (Aubery Plaza), a woman of uncertain skills inmaquillage, and a devotion to Simon’s work filtered through a prism that only she can fathom. Together Ned and Susan cross a country where hotels never have the right accommodations for them, while Fay, Simon, and Ned’s foster father, Rev. Gardner (Martin Donovan), attempt to stop them, and we in the audience are riveted by the seeming non-sequitors of the action that, in truth, is a cleverly considered story that neatly ties up not just this film, but the trilogy as a whole.
Impetuous actions such as Ned’s permeate the film’s landscape, resulting in characters with telescopic focus that fails to see the forest, as it were, not so much for the trees, as for the chloroplasts populating the leaves thereof. It is an arch and mannered simulacrum of reality that, in its very artificiality, is more compelling than the mundane. The dialogue is a rhythmic staccato of ethical and philosophical musings, and arresting dialectics on the conflict between popular culture and high art. Sin, redemption, and evil take on fascinating ancillary aspects, where they elevate and degrade in equal measure as they transcend mere biblical definition. Emotions run high, but are never squandered with physical outbursts. There is a heat to the icy facades that bespeaks a maelstrom of passions made more potent for their sublimation.
Savagely intellectual, ferociously poignant, NED RIFLE dares to rethink the meaning of family in an age where the structure of same has irrevocably changed. Hartley forces us to laugh, gasp, and weep over it, and creates an exhilarating experience from our very disconcertion.