Combustible Celluloid
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With: Liam Aiken, Aubrey Plaza, Thomas Jay Ryan, James Urbaniak, Parker Posey, Martin Donovan, Robert John Burke, Karen Sillas, Bill Sage, Melissa Bithom, Jefferson Mays, Bob Byington, Lloyd Kaufman
Written by: Hal Hartley
Directed by: Hal Hartley
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 85
Date: 04/03/2015

Ned Rifle (2015)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Pens and Bullets

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Not unlike Richard Linklater's Before trilogy, Hal Hartley's Henry Fool saga began with the first film in 1998, continued with Fay Grim (2007), and now (seemingly) concludes with Ned Rifle. The new movie focuses on the illegitimate offspring of Fay Grim and Henry Fool, dubbed Ned (Liam Aiken). Taken in by a religious family and taught the ways of the Lord, Ned decides to leave on his 18th birthday, track down his father, and kill him. He first visits his mother, Fay (Parker Posey), in prison, where she is serving a life sentence for her so-called terrorist activities in the second film.

Ned's plan is complicated by the presence of a beautiful, troubled young woman, Susan (Aubrey Plaza). She seems to be stalking Ned's uncle, Simon Grim (James Urbaniak), the former poet laureate, whose career was kick-started in the first movie by Henry. (He is now attempting to be a comedian with his own blog and YouTube channel.) Susan has written a paper on Simon, and especially on the influence upon Simon's work by Henry, and has also been hired to ghost-write Fay's memoir. Susan hits the road with Ned to help find Henry, but unbeknownst to anyone, Susan has her own secret past with Henry.

Even though it has been a whole 25 years since Hartley's first feature, The Unbelievable Truth, his new film sounds almost exactly the same. His dialogue has a crisp, sardonic, back-and-forth quality, as if characters were bargaining over information and logic. Hartley's framing is also still the same, with simple, medium shots designed for the most deadpan of reactions; it's as if extreme reactions were impossible in a Hartley film.

Plaza is the real key. Her own brand of humor seems to fit just perfectly with Hartley's sensibility, and she's smarter, sexier and more damaged here than in any of her other films. Those poor, tortured souls out there with crushes on her will find her totally irresistible here; you can feel that even Hartley must have fallen for her eye-rolling charms. It's unclear as to whether Hartley will go on to chronicle the further adventures of Ned, but for now the saga of Henry Fool has reached a most satisfying end.

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