Sunday, March 29, 2015

Ned Rifle: The Grim Family Endures

In 1998, people still talked about independent filmmaking as a movement, while keeping a straight face. You could also get away with characters named “Henry Fool” and “Simon Grim” without being dismissed for clumsy pretension. It was therefore the perfect time to release Hal Hartley’s Henry Fool, which remains his biggest hit to date. The dramedic fable hardly seemed to lend itself to a sequel treatment, yet Hartley delivered Fay Grim anyway. The Grim family is now a full-fledged franchise, with Hartley’s third installment, Ned Rifle (trailer here) opening this Wednesday in New York.

If you remember the first Fool, but skipped the second Grim, you are not alone. Apparently, at the end of her eponymous film, Fay Grim was unjustly convicted of terrorism and her son, Ned Rifle as he is now known, went into witness relocation. Needless to say, this fine state of affairs is all the fault of her husband, Rifle’s father, the jerkweed literary poseur and degenerate drunkard Henry Fool. After seven years, Rifle is finally allowed to see his mother. Aging out of witness protection, he will soon leave Rev. Daniel Gardner’s family to set out on his own. His plan is simple. Kill Henry Fool for ruining his mother’s life.

This would seem run somewhat counter to the Christian faith Rifle adopted under Rev. Gardner’s tutelage, but sometimes a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do. To find Fool, Rifle will drop in on his uncle, Nobel Prize winning poet Simon Grim. That is how he crosses paths with Susan Weber, a graduate student sort of stalking Grim. However, as Weber attaches herself to Rifle, it becomes clear she has her own mysterious reasons for wanting to track down Fool.

Despite Rifle’s rather problematic mission, Hartley treats his Evangelical faith rather respectfully. It is very clear he and Rev. Gardner are flawed, but we are supposed to consider them basically good people nonetheless. Fool on the other hand, remains an intentionally Mephistolean figure, as well as an annoying blowhard. Again, there is something hugely compelling about Simon Grim’s idiosyncratically humanistic perspective, but Hartley shortchanges him on screen time this go round.

Nevertheless, it is impossible to take one’s eyes off James Urbaniak when he is on screen. He continues to deepen Grim’s cynical but forgiving everyman persona. Martin Donovan is suitably earnest as Rev. Gardner, while Thomas Jay Ryan continues to be wildly obnoxious and somewhat menacing as Fool. Parker Posey makes the most of her limited scenes, playing Fay Grim like a jailhouse Norma Desmond. However, Aiken (who has played Rifle since he was a mere lad of seven years) grows into the neurotic lead role quite nicely. He also develops some appealingly off-kilter chemistry with series newcomer Aubrey Plaza, who manages to be simultaneously awkward and sultry as Weber.

The problem with the misconceived war-on-terror middle film is that the Grim family is now stuck with a lot of clunky mythology. Hartley does his best to minimize it, reaching back to a scandal furtively referenced in the first film for the film’s big shocking reveal. It all works better than you might expect, even though the characters all seem slightly embarrassed by their continuing longevity. After all, Henry Fool was the sort of you want to seal into a climate controlled vault, lest it be contaminated by a stray ironic remark from outside its ecosystem.

Although billed as the final chapter, if there is a fourth film, it has to focus on Urbaniak again and be called Simon Grim. Of course, we have to deal with what we have before us—Ned Rifle, which manages to get into your head thanks to some eccentric but forceful performances and Hartley’s soothing electric soundtrack. Recommended for fans of Hartley and Plaza, Ned Rifle opens this Wednesday (4/1) at the IFC Center, in New York.