by Carrie Specht
The Cinefamily’s Hal Hartley Film Retrospective runs April 2nd – 4th. This is the first-ever West Coast retrospective of the works of the iconic film auteur, but don’t worry if you miss it because there will be additional Saturday matinee screenings throughout the rest of the month featuring eight career spanning films. Although, Hartley is only in attendance for the April 2nd through 4th screenings, you still have the opportunity to see the rest of the films on the big screen, including the Los Angeles premiere of his latest feature, NED RIFLE. The film’s stars, including Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World), James Urbaniak (American Splendor, Henry Fool) and Liam Aiken (Fay Grim, Road to Perdition) are expected to make appearances. This highly anticipated retrospective is the kickoff of a weeklong Cinefamily run of NED RIFLE April 3rd through April 9th.
Now it’s no secret that Hartley’s filmmaking style can be an acquired taste. However, his deadpan “dramadies” filled with taut dialogue and offbeat characters defined classic American independent filmmaking of the 1990s. And it was Hartley’s films that offered breakthrough roles to Parker Posey (The House of Yes, Waiting for Guffman), Edie Falco (The Sapranos, Nurse Jackie), Adrienne Shelley (The Unbelievable Truth, Waitress), and Martin Donovan (Insomnia, Weeds). It’s hard to believe, but NED RIFLE is Hartley’s first feature film in eight years. It premiered at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival, and recently screened at the South by Southwest Film Festival, marking the triumphant completion of the trilogy that started with HENRY FOOL and continued with FAY GRIM. Although these films were made over a period of fifteen years, Hartley used the same actors to play the same characters in three different films over the course of a generation (if this sounds familiar it’s because recent Best Picture nominee BOYHOOD accomplished something similar but very different shooting one film over the corse of twelve years with the same actors). Each film in Hartley’s trilogy includes Parker Posey, Thomas James Ryan, James Urbaniak and actor Liam Aiken. Aiken was just seven years old in 1997, and in 2014 he returns in NED RIFLE as a teenage born-again Christian convinced it is his duty to hunt down and kill his father. This is most definitely not your typical family saga.
This beautifully shot film has an overall somber tone and pace that accentuates the personality of the characters. The matte color palate is undoubtedly the trademark of a low budget film, however in this case the desaturation of the world in which these characters live is pitch perfect and accentuates the muddled thinking of each. Those unfamiliar with Hartley and his approach to character may mistake the even keel performances as bad acting or misguided “helmsmanship”, but they would be mistaken. Hartley and his actors know exactly what they are doing, and the result is quiet rich and satisfying. These are real people, not movie people. And real people who behave in un-dramatic ways give punctuation to their actions when they stray from the norm. These are fine performances marked by the nuances of character that know what they need to do. And even though everyone’s quest is a serious one, there are never any high dramatic moments until absolutely necessary, and even then there is a quiet acceptance of events.
Undoubtedly, NED RIFLE holds a greater impact for those who have seen the first two films. However, it is not necessary to see the first two to understand and enjoy the third. Like any well-made sequel, NED RIFLE has an impactful story of its own. In fact, the original film was never conceived as a three part series. It was not until FAY GRIM that Hartley decided there was to be a third film to complete the story. But that doesn’t even matter, because the story is a basic one. It is clear from the very beginning that Ned has issues with his parents and is determined to resolve the matter by avenging his mother for the wrong his father has done her. And thus the journey of a young man begins, but before all is over he emerges as a man. Although he is not the man he expected to be. How could he be with no one else being who he expected them to be? SPOILER – His presumed suffering mother seems to be enjoying prison life, his lovely companion appears to be a nymphomaniac bent on a twisted kind of revenge, and his father whom he has always envisioned as a son of the devil turns out to be a type of modern day sage. And it all fits together in a beautifully crafted tale without a single car chase, explosion, or computer-generated effect. NED RIFLE is just plain old good story telling. It’s definitely unique, very original and certainly twisted, but solidly good at its very core.
Of course Parker Posey provides a solid performance as Ned’s mother, and the rest of the Hartley stable of actors (Aiken,Urbaniak,Thomas Jay Ryan and Martin Donovan) are just as reliable. Amazingly enough, it is the young television comedy star, Aubrey Plaza who stands out by fitting in so nicely with this well-established group of Hartley veterans. Her signature droll delivery is perfectly in step with the world Hartley has carefully established over the years. Her’s is a performance that straddles dry comedy, mystery and intrigue. It is a screen characterization that will propel her in directions we have not seen her attempt before, and the opportunities that are about to come her way are well deserved. Although the image above (used in many ads) depicts Plaza in a very sensational pose, her performance is far more subtle and complicated than implied. Much like a Hal Hartley film. You always get more than the sensational, there’s also depth.
The Hal Hartley Retrospective screening schedule includes the Friday night premier of NED RIFLE, the Saturday presentation of TRUST and THE UNBELIEVABLE TRUTH, the Saturday April 11th screening of SURVIVING DESIRE, followed by the Saturday, April 18th afternoon show of SIMPLE MEN, finishing up Saturday, April 25th with THE BOOK OF LIFE. All screenings will take place at The Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre, 611 N. Fairfax Avenue, LA 90036. Tickets and Screening information can be found at the Cinefamily’s official site: http://www.cinefamily.org/films/the-films-of-hal-hartley