TIFF Review: 'Ned Rifle'

Ned Rifle
(USA, 85 min.)
Written and directed by Hal Hartley
Starring: Liam Aiken, Aubrey Plaza, Parker Posey, Martin Donovan, Thomas Jay Ryan
Programme: Special Presentations (World Premiere)
Photo courtesy of TIFF.
“Where indie meets epic.” The Toronto International Film Festival used this tagline a few years ago to invite audiences to celebrate the versatile range of films that one may enjoy in the festival experience. One could just as easily employ the ad line to sell Ned Rifle, Hal Hartley's satisfying conclusion to the epic art house trilogy that begin with Henry Fool in 1997 and continued a decade later with Fay Grim. This third and final entry in the saga of the Grim-Fools is an epic, idiosyncratic sequel that caps off a trilogy with the kind of verve to which Hollywood trilogies can only aspire.

Ned Rifle marks one of Hartley’s better satires with this deadpan take on America's hyperbolic obsession with national security and violence as a means to an end. Ned's passivity clashes with his weirdly religious guise, which he wears like an ill-fitting suit (his foster family is a led by a Pastor (Martin Donovan)), and it makes him a subversive mutation of the all-American hero. He’s eager to draw violence but too inert to do so.

This instalment follows Fay's son, Ned (Liam Aiken), as he quits witness protection and aims to avenge his mother. Fay (Parker Posey) faces life in the slammer for treason after being arrested at the end of the previous film. Ned Rifle drops a line or two to help guide viewers along, but prospective viewers will need to see the first two films to get the most out of Ned Rifle.

Rifle suffers a bit from the comparative absence of Parker Posey as Ned's mom (she has a few great scenes) since Fay is arguably the central character of Fay and Henry. Posey’s dry delivery and endless likability drives much of the trilogy, so it’s a bit disappointing to see a force that first attracted one to this fictional world receive a comparative backseat. (Ned and Aiken simply aren’t the same presence.) What Ned Rifle loses from Posey’s absence, though, it gains in the presence of Aubrey Plaza as Susan, a graduate student obsessed with Henry Fool who also happens to be ghostwriting Fay’s autobiography. Plaza is a perfect fit for Hartley’s signature monotone dialogue, and she brings an independent spirit akin to Posey as she sardonically minces with Ned with a saucy bark. Plaza also rocks the crazy lipstick in a running gag that sees Susan smear red goo all over her face as she struggles to apply her make up. (She always looks like she’s just performed sexual favours.) She offers one of the most eccentric characters of Hartley’s creation.

Hartley’s sharp script propels Ned’s vendetta at the same rapid pace with which the characters exchange funny repartee. Ned Rifle is an intellectuals’ thriller and thinking person’s comedy, as the drama and jokes culminate in an unexpected finale that brings a fittingly tragic conclusion to the tale of Fay Grim and Henry Fool. This wise young Ned Rifle brings a note of optimism to the Hartley oeuvre as the film ends by celebrating a generation that is wise to the mistakes of their elders. This offbeat epic is one of Hartley’s best.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

*Apologies for the delay on this one. A much longer version of this review was written earlier in the week, but the file was lost to that black hole of festival coverage chaos... :(