NED RIFLE Review | SXSW 2015

     March 26, 2015

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It’s been about 17 years since Henry Fool hit theaters, but the time has finally come for writer-director Hal Hartley to wrap up the trilogy. Whether or not you go into Ned Rifle with a connection to the characters, there is some fun to be had with the material, but knowing what the group experienced in prior films will undoubtedly enrich the experience. However, on the other hand, Hartley did kick off the series with an eccentric yet thoughtful character journey so there’s no overlooking the fact that Ned Rifle feels more like playtime in an unnecessarily heightened version of the world he established in the first installment.

Liam Aiken leads as Ned Rifle. When his mother, Fay Grim (Parker Posey), is convicted of treason and given a life sentence, Ned is sent to live with Reverend Daniel Gardner (Martin Donovan) and his family. Four years later, Ned turns 18 and decides to leave the Gardners so he can track down and kill the man responsible for his mother’s incarceration, his father, Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan).

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Image via Possible Films

As someone who jumped into this movie without having seen the first two installments of Hartley’s trilogy, Henry Fool and Fay Grim, Ned Rifle took some getting used to, but thanks to Aiken’s understated yet alluring performance, it’s easy to fall into step with the beat, style and tone of the piece. It’s a little unclear why a god-fearing man like Ned would think killing his father is the answer, but the concept is presented in a manner that makes you think there’s more to the situation that could justify the decision, and that gives Ned Rifle a good deal of its forward momentum.

One of the first steps to tracking down his dad is to visit his uncle in New York City, the accomplished poet, Simon Grim (James Urbaniak). While there, Ned runs into Simon’s groupie/stalker, Susan (Aubrey Plaza), takes pity on her and winds up letting her tag along when he goes cross-country to find his father. Similar to Ned, Susan’s motivation is tough to pinpoint, but there is a reason for it. The trouble is, the way Hartley and Plaza reveal it isn’t particularly effective. The character’s got some intriguing qualities and personal problems, but rather than let the audience peel back Susan’s layers, the reveal is more happenstance and it’s just not as much fun when you don’t feel part of that process.

And that’s actually one of the film’s biggest flaws overall. Hartley does a fine job enveloping the viewer in the world, but even then, you’re just watching Ned Rifle. It is somewhat enjoyable to track the curious characters, but that’s as far as it goes because there’s so little access to them. Clues to finding his father generally just land in Ned’s lap and when things don’t go his way, he’s complacent about it. That quality makes Ned a nice, noble and likable guy, but it also keeps his adventure from being especially exciting.

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Image via Possible Films

However, that’s not to say that Ned Rifle isn’t an entertaining movie. It clocks in at a swift 85 minutes, rocks a refreshingly unique sense of humor and has a bunch of colorful characters. Did I have some fun watching them navigate their unusual predicament? Yes. Did I get anything else out of the experience? Not really.

After checking out Ned Rifle I decided to go back and give Henry Fool and Fay Grim a watch and, as one might expect, knowing what these characters experienced through the years did give the events of Ned Rifle a bit more weight, but the third installment still pales in comparison to its predecessors, especially Henry Fool. Whereas Henry Fool is more of a black comedy with crazy characters dealing with rather grounded predicaments, Ned Rifle has a somewhat zany, ridiculous quality to it. Simon and Henry’s journey in Henry Fool really meant something. Ned’s is enjoyable, but it definitely doesn’t register on a deeper level.

Rating: B-

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