One of the best things about Ned Rifle, the third & presumably last film in the Henry Fool saga, is that it keeps the references to Fay Grim (the 2nd film in the series) to a minimum. Fay (Parker Posey) is now in prison serving a life sentence from the events in the 2nd film, but other than that there’s really no other mention of anything else that happened in Fay Grim. I don’t want to start this review off on a sour note, but I really didn’t like Fay Grim. I give Hal Hartley much respect for taking on such an ambitious project (in Fay Grim he touches on everything from globalization to coexisting religions in America), but it just didn’t work for me. I guess I liked the idea of the dysfunctional family from Queens that we came to love in Henry Fool (the first film) suddenly caught up in a world of terrorism, globetrotting & espionage, but the actual final product just wasn’t my cup of tea (I’m saying this as respectfully as possible given that I’m a diehard Hal Hartley fan). In the first film our colorful characters dealt with relatable/personal issues like trust, friendship & child abuse. Then suddenly those same characters are thrown in to a quirky Tom Clancy-esque world of spies & secret agents in Fay Grim. It was clear that Hartley became attached to the wonderful characters from his original film and he didn’t want to let them go. However the events in Fay Grim just didn’t jive with the events in the previous film.
Ned Rifle has way more of a connection to Henry Fool (Simon Grim even goes back to wearing his original garbage man outfit again). I liken the Henry Fool trilogy to the original Mario Brothers trilogy for Nintendo
For those of you who are equally knowledgeable in art-house cinema as well as old school video games – remember how much different the 2nd Mario brothers video game looked in comparison to the first & third ones? The same thing applies to these movies. It’s almost like Fay Grim was a dream and now we’re back to reality. The only other minor connection/similarity that Ned Rifle has with Fay Grim is that some of the characters in both films have taken on new identities in an effort to deceive some of the other characters.
As some of you may know, each one of these films focuses on a character whose life is drastically changed by Henry (the degenerate central character in this saga). In the first film it was Henry’s friend/brother-in-law Simon Grim. In the sequel it’s his wife Fay Grim. In part three we focus on Henry’s son… In Ned Rifle, we pick up with an 18 year old, newly evangelical Ned Grim. With his mother (Fay) in prison and his father (Henry) still on the run (again, you kinda have to see Fay Grim to understand), he’s been living the last couple of years in the witness protection program (under the moniker “Ned Rifle”) under the care of a loving religious foster family (played by old school Hal Hartley regulars Martin Donovan & Karen Sillas). Now that Ned is an adult, he plans to move out of his foster home, find his father Henry, and kill him for ruining his mother’s life.
Along his quest he picks up a companion in the form of “Susan” – a young grad student whose dedicated her life to the work Ned’s famous Uncle Simon Grim – a world renown poet and former garbage man who is now taking a stab at stand-up comedy. As the story progresses we learn that Susan isn’t really who or what she says she is. In fact, she has a relationship with Henry that Ned isn’t even aware of.
My biggest gripe as a Hal Hartley fan surrounding this film is that critics seem to be mostly concerned with Aubrey Plaza’s presence. I know she’s the biggest name in the movie, so she’s going to draw the most attention. But at the end of the day Ned Rifle was made for fans like me who are familiar with Hartley’s universe. We watched the same actors/characters for the last 16 years through three movies. Aubrey Plaza is a new addition to a story with characters that have 16 years of history with some of us. Presenting this movie as if it’s centered around just her (which many critics coming out of Toronto have kinda been doing), is going to give the wrong idea.
But I don’t mean to downplay her. If you know how Hartley directs his actors then you can imagine that Plaza is a perfect fit with her usual apathetic/bored delivery. She gave a surprisingly good performance in this and her character is pretty important to the story (it might be good to revisit Henry Fool before watching this).
In addition to the Henry Fool/Fay Grim references, Hartley uses almost all of his original stock actors (with the exception of Edie Falco & Chuck Montgomery). For fans like me – seeing Martin Donovan, Karen Sillas, Bill Sage & Robert John Burke in a recent Hal Hartley film is like seeing Robert Deniro, Harvey Keitel, Frank Vincent & Joe Pesci show up in a new Martin Scorsese film all of a sudden. In typical Hal Hartley fashion there’s plenty of semi-deadpan quirkiness; religious figures; (intentionally) dry yet prolific delivery from the actors; well choreographed movements; and a finale that leaves it up to the viewers to decide if certain characters are redeemed or not (actually, the end of Ned Rifle is pretty similar to the end of Hartley’s 1994 film Amateur).