Back in the 1990s, Hal Hartley was one of the signature directors of American independent cinema. His films weren’t for all tastes, but they sure were distinct: His aesthetic was colorful, but calm; his actors deadpan, but articulate. The films were often ironic romances, with bursts of casual criminality and tossed-off philosophy. Godard was clearly an influence, as was Jim Jarmusch. But Hartley’s voice was very much his. And, as evidenced in films like The Unbearable Truth and Simple Men, it was perfect for those jaded, scare-quote-friendly times. That’s not a knock: I watched those movies religiously, and I still occasionally revisit them.
In 1997 Hartley made what was probably his greatest film, Henry Fool, a surprisingly complex, ambitious comedy about a mysterious, charismatic, but largely talentless novelist (Thomas Jay Ryan), who befriends and inspires a garbage man (James Urbaniak) and romances his sister (Parker Posey). The garbage man winds up becoming an acclaimed poet, which drives a wedge between their co-dependent mentor-mentee relationship. It was brilliant, but you sort of had to be there: The film felt like the culmination of everything Hartley had been doing until then. He never made another film like it.
Over the years, Hartley has continued to work, and his films have always been of interest, but they’ve felt increasingly minor. (Some haven’t even been properly released.) The reasons for that are probably manifold: The films mostly haven’t been as good, but changing times may also be a factor. In 2006, Hartley made Fay Grim, a sequel to Henry Fool, but it (deliberately, probably) had none of the earlier film’s ambition or soul; rather, it followed the sister character on a weird, ironic espionage thriller. The movie felt like a doodle, though not an entirely unwelcome one.
And now Hartley has made yet another sequel to that earlier film. In Ned Rifle, Fay the sister is now in prison for terrorism, and her son with Henry, Ned (Liam Aiken), has been raised by a reverend (Martin Donovan) to be a strict, ruthless moralist. The boy is devout, driven, and resentful: He wants to track down his father and kill him. Mom points him to Uncle Simon (the aforementioned garbage man-cum-acclaimed poet), who has given up his award-winning literary career to focus on a futile foray into stand-up comedy vlogging. (“People want a good laugh now and then … Enough with the earnest inflection, the tragic but unifying elusiveness of the human spirit in modern times and so on,” Simon shrugs, a perfectly hilarious and on-point burst of Hartleyism.)
Ned also meets Susan (Aubrey Plaza, whose own jaded persona makes an ideal fit for Hartley’s world), a beautiful, homeless grad student obsessed with Simon’s poetry, but who may possibly have ulterior motives. They share a room together, but not a bed. Ned remains his chaste, virgin self, intensely muttering prayers to himself as he sits in the dark, Susan’s alluring bare thighs curled up not far from him.
Ned Rifle actually gets fairly twisty, so it’s best not to go into the details of the plot here. The film seems to be yet another of Hartley’s philosophical takes on one’s engagement with the world. In Henry Fool, the rest of the world seemed to linger on the edges of the frame, promising glory and defeat and fame and love and failure — the characters were cool and dry, but they hinted at barely concealed passions; they wanted to live. Here, the world has come and gone, and everybody is looking to escape it, or deny it, or destroy it. One character is in prison; the other is confined to a hotel room, existing mostly on the internet; another has checked into a mental asylum; and the rest are priests, or assassins, or some variation on both. It’s an interesting idea, and the deep pall of suspicion that hangs over some of Ned Rifle is occasionally compelling.
But the movie doesn’t exactly go anywhere. Or rather, it dithers around, and then, just as things start to get interesting, it ends. The prevailing mood in Ned Rifle is one of blockage, of avoidance. Ned and Susan are two characters whose chief impulse is denial and rejection. There’s a reason for that, as the film reveals to us. But the Hartley of yesteryear loved to play with such elements, to interrogate these characters’ attitudes: Plot was secondary to bouncing different worldviews off one another. Here, he mostly lets them be. That’s maybe part of the point — remember that line about the elusiveness of the human spirit in modern times. But it doesn’t exactly make for exciting cinema. Ned Rifle is interesting, but inert — and a far cry from the masterpiece it seeks to complete.