Aubrey Plaza film

Ned Rifle Review: Life Is Wacky and Tragic, So Grin and Bear It -- Or Don't, Your Choice

Friday, April 10, 2015 Rob Samuelson

Ned Rifle

Director: Hal Hartley
Writer: Hal Hartley
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Liam Aiken, Parker Posey, James Urbaniak, Thomas Jay Ryan
Rating: Four Stars Out of Five
Available now to stream on demand.

I'd wager a good deal of money that Hal Hartley likes himself some Flannery O'Connor. In his latest film, Ned Rifle, he has imbued the mid-20th century author's sense of Christian guilt, moralization, social discomfort, and oncoming disaster into every frame. He has swapped modern urban academics, intellectuals, and the God-fearing reborn for O'Connor's doomed Southern sinners, but the pain of social interaction and balancing of faith with reality puts Hartley and O'Connor on the same continuum.

The eponymous Ned, played by Liam Aiken as a youthful, long-haired dead ringer for comedian John Mulaney, has been cared for by an evangelical family for the better part of his teenage years following his mother's (Parker Posey) arrest for her part in a terrorism plot. His father (Thomas Jay Ryan) also spent years imprisoned for sex crimes and mental hospitals following adverse side effects for experimental drugs. Hartley has a thing for extravagantly off kilter backstories. Upon his 18th birthday, Ned decides to go out into the world to meet his dad.

Oh, and he vows to shoot the jerk dead.

One thing before we continue here. One of the more remarkable aspects of Ned Rifle is how integrated and natural all this stuff feels. Despite the reality of it being the third film in a trilogy, following 1997's Henry Fool (about Ned's father) and 2006's Fay Grim (about his mother), nothing about these backstories and relationships has that sitcom-y catchup stuff like, “Hey, remember when this important thing related to today's plot happened?” There's a richness of shared experience between characters that probably grows when one has seen all three films – I haven't, but plan to in short order after this viewing – but the important thing is nobody needs to see the previous two entries to receive the full experience. This story is self-contained yet clearly of a piece with a larger tale of one horribly tragicomic family.

Got it? Cool. Onward.

Ned first heads to his poet laureate uncle (James Urbaniak) in New York for information regarding the whereabouts of his father. The uncle, Simon, lives as a shut-in in a hotel you'd imagine Hemingway would have stayed at on a bender. In the lobby sits Susan (Aubrey Plaza), a graduate student with an unhealthy fixation on, and connections to, all things Ned's family. Plaza befriends Ned and on an adventure they go.

Plaza turns her public and Parks and Recreation personas on their heads here. She maintains the deadpan delivery, but there's a panicky anxiety beneath everything. Her makeup is never right, always over-applied, and her clothes are wrinkled, her skirts forever hiking up. This is part of a sexual tension-temptation angle for the chaste Ned, but it's part of her character being more than a mere temptress. She can't put her life together, and it's all the Fool-Grim-Rifle family's fault. It's about chemical imbalances and inability to function socially as a result of confusion and trauma.

Ned, too, is scarred, as one might expect. He has learned to be direct with people, to the point of rudeness. There's a born again smugness at the way he thumbs his nose at the sinners all around him, never questioning his urges, or, you know, the murderous goal he has for his father.

Ned's inability to look inward provides much of the ironic detachment necessary to make this more than a dreary mopefest. Ned Rifle is a funny movie. It's a wry wit, and there aren't many belly laughs, but Hartley's feel for the absurdity of these people's lives is spot-on. Much like the poets and writers he populates the film with, it's a literary sensibility, which at times detracts from the cinematic, aesthetic qualities often required for a great film. However, Hartley's static camera compositions can still be striking and evocative. That makes it hard to ding him for lack of pizazz, even if the majority of the film is point-and-shoot workmanship.

Ned's counterpoint is his father, Henry, who gets a surprising – and pleasant – amount of screen time for a character originally set up as the dragon to be slain. He's brash, gross, paranoid, and oddly charming, able to coerce people into doing pretty much whatever he wants. Ryan gets a lot of traction out of his uncanny vocal resemblance to comedy elder statesman Albert Brooks, a gravelly but calming timbre that shows him to be self-aware and generally at peace with his sleaziness.

It is Henry who gives the film its ultimate power. His acceptance of himself, even as an objectively bad person, is somehow healthier than the denial of Susan and Ned. It leaves Ned Rifle with the good kind of mixed message, the kind that makes you think about the icky parts of yourself and whether those are acceptable, especially if you can't break yourself from those habits. By all means, give self improvement a shot, but what happens if it doesn't take? Then you're up Ned Rifle creek.

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