Director: Hal Hartley
Stars: Liam Aiken, Aubrey Plaza
4 (out of 5) Globes
Director Hal Hartley (“Trust,” “Surviving Desire”) isn’t a world-builder, per se, in that he doesn’t have an expansive mythology worked out, with interconnecting characters, over every film a la Marvel or Kevin Smith. Yet all his films create the same general kind of space: an alternate dimension that is his and only his, where characters often speak in the same hyperarticulate curlicues, plowed through, deadpan, by assured actors while declaiming in place. There’s more to Hartley’s films than his brand, and the quality isn’t always consistent. But even the fumbled or tossed-off ones tend to be enjoyable as places for viewers to go.
“Ned Rifle” isn’t a fumbled one, and far from it. But it does have a miniature quality to it — at only 85 minutes, with a semi-abrupt conclusion — that makes it seem minor but also major, because it’s still Hartley on most, if not all, cylinders. There’s that, and there’s this: it’s the second sequel in a highly unlikely, and highly unusual, trilogy. It returns us to the world of 1997’s “Henry Fool,” Hartley’s longest and arguably most serious film — an eccentric drama about an abrasive wordsmith (Thomas Jay Ryan) who enters into the lives of a mousy budding poet (Jay Urbaniak) and his trashy sister (Parker Posey). Eight years later Hartley returned to them, with “Fay Grim,” only this time, improbably and hilariously, their story had evolved into a goofy globe-trotting thriller boasting espionage, guns and Jeff Goldblum.
Now there’s “Ned Rifle,” which takes the form of a road trip comedy-of-sorts, focused on the eponymous love-child of Posey’s Fay and Ryan’s Henry. Fay is in prison for life due to the events of “Fay Grim”; Ned (Liam Aiken) has been raised in witness relocation by a priest (Martin Donovan). Now of age, Ned has decided to avenge his mother by finding Henry, who has disappeared, and possibly shooting him. On his travels he meets the kooky, possibly insane Susan (Aubrey Plaza), who’s been stalking Urbaniak’s Simon, now an ex-poet laureate who has decided on a probably ill-considered career move into stand-up comedy vlogging.
“Ned Rifle” works like that: It seems more serious than it lets on, but then suddenly punctures the tone with something silly — but not so silly that it capsizes the picture. It helps that it’s funny when it wants to be; Simon’s vocational shift also yields a hilarious, two-line cameo from Troma king Lloyd Kaufman. The real yuks, though, and as ever, come from Hartley’s verbal prowess. Not everyone sounds the same; some are better with words than others, although it’s a good joke when the more meat-and-potatoes Fay suddenly, and only briefly, launches into flowery poetics. (“You don’t sound like yourself, who have you been talking to?” prods Simon.) Once Henry crashes the narrative, the ever-dexterous (and criminally undercast) Ryan unleashes a torrent of flowing verbal beauty at once impressive and obnoxious.
But it’s Plaza who’s the unlikely MVP. In her usual on-screen persona (and often off-), Plaza has a more disdainful type of deadpan than the kind wielded by Hartley, plus mushy-mouthed delivery that crushes words and dribbles them out. That is to say she’s not someone one would entrust with euphonious language. Yet she proves a perversely ideal Hartley dialogue delivery system, much the same way Greta Gerwig’s stoned drawl made her a dynamite outside-the-box mouthpiece for Whit Stillman droll one-liners in “Damsels in Distress.” Plaza slightly modifies her shtick to highly amusing ends, both fitting into Hartley’s unique world and spinning it to her own whims. Susan is an enigma who keeps revealing secrets and secret sides, and Plaza manages to build a character who keeps surprising us, seeming by turns vaguely unhinged, rabidly intelligent and incorrigibly sexy/sex-crazed. When she works her way through a block of byzantine Hartley gymnastics, “Ned Rifle” seems like the best thing in theaters right now. It feels that way other times too.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge