I have never seen a film by Hal Hartley. He’s a filmmaker who has been maneuvering around the independent film scene for decades, and he’s just a blind spot for me. Consequently, I’ve never seen the previous two entries to the trilogy Ned Rifle serves to conclude, those being 1997’s Henry Fool and 2006’s Fay Grim. In a way it seems he’s taking a page from Richard Linklater‘s Before series and releasing a new entry every nine years. If this film did anything, it made me interested in checking out Hartley’s other films, particularly the two I mentioned, but despite my enjoyment of hearing this deadpan dialogue excellently delivered (mostly) by a talented ensemble of actors, the film is so dry it made it difficult to connect with some of its characters, mainly the titular lead.
Ned Grim (Liam Aiken) has taken up the persona “Ned Rifle”, and has been living with a reverend (Martin Donovan) and his family for several years in witness protection after his mother (Parker Posey) was incarcerated for alleged terrorist activities, to which Ned believes his father Henry (Thomas Jay Ryan) is truly responsible. On his 18th birthday, Ned sets out to find Henry and kill him to enact righteous justice, due in part to Ned’s new-found religious fanaticism while living with the reverend. On his search, he comes across a woman named Susan (Aubrey Plaza), a woman obsessed with Ned’s uncle’s, Simon Grim (James Urbaniak), poetry, who starts to follow Ned around the country for possibly a nefarious purpose.
The cast here is a deadpan dialogue writer’s dream. Plaza, Posey, Ryan, and especially Urbaniak are able to make a meal out of every word they’re given. They are able to give so much life to the straightforward and curt writing, making for a lot of laughs and differentiating the voices of the characters where they all could easily sound the same. The only person who doesn’t pull this off is, unfortunately, the film’s lead Liam Aiken. Ned’s an eighteen year-old religious zealot, and Aiken somehow manages to make that a boring character. It doesn’t help when you put him against these people who own everything about their performances. I know he was in the other movies, but he was a kid who probably didn’t know any better in those. Here, he’s an adult who just struggles to convey any kind of emotion.
It’s a tricky thing when the main characters of a movie know less about what’s happening than the audience. Sometimes it’s an effective use of tension, waiting for the reveal and ultimate consequences. It’s sort of a noir staple to use this kind of storytelling, but it works best if you a.) care about all of the people involved and b.) the payoff justifies the build up. I would say “b” is rewarded. The ultimate reveal of everyone’s motivations works and how they deal with them is engaging. It’s “a” where the film kind of loses me.
A lot of this goes back to Aiken not being good enough to handle this kind of dialogue or character. He’s the man we’re supposed to care about, and I never for a second did. I’m not sure if I can put that entirely on Aiken, Hartley gives him almost nothing to do character-wise. Basically, he’s religious, and there’s not much more to him. That’s something you can put on top of a foundation, but I don’t see much of a foundation for Ned. The only other adjective I could use to describe him is “boring”. So, when we come to Ned’s climactic beats, I could appreciate the technical execution of it, but was never immersed in it.
When the film’s supporting players are given time to shine, explore character, and, most importantly, be funny, Ned Rifle is top notch quirk and really exciting to watch. I want to watch a whole movie about Thomas Jay Ryan‘s Henry Fool and James Urbaniak‘s Simon Grim. Ned Rifle is one of the few sequels where you do not have to see the preceding films to understand what’s happening, but that doesn’t mean it’s a fully satisfying film. I may revisit it down the line, after exploring the first two films, but there’s no immediate desire. I laughed quite a bit, but by the end, was left a bit cold.