Hal Hartley Anchors His Humor to a Genuinely Thrilling Story in Ned Rifle


Hal Hartley is nothing if not the progenitor of his own carefully cultivated cinematic world: the Hartleyverse, always filled with comically affected characters, allusions to other works of art, and dry social commentary.

It’s all there in Ned Rifle, the final entry in Hartley’s trilogy that, starting with Henry Fool, examines one deeply eccentric family. Eighteen-year-old Ned (Liam Aiken) is on a quest to murder his notorious criminal father, Henry (Thomas Jay Ryan), for getting Ned’s mother, Fay, sent to prison as a result of Henry’s terrorist associations.

Ned has spent the past ten years in foster care, and has grown into a pious young man with a religiously fervent sense of morality — a welcome contrast against the more ethically malleable souls who surround him. The most Hartleyesque touch: Ned’s uncle Simon (James Urbaniak), a former poet laureate who now makes stand-up comedy videos for YouTube. Ned sets out after his father, accompanied by a fan of Simon’s (Aubrey Plaza) who, in a gag that can’t help but recall Whit Stillman, is perpetually referred to as “winsome.”

Hartley and Stillman emerged on the American indie scene simultaneously, and much like his confrere, Hartley is a gifted practitioner of mannered, dry comedy; but what emerges during Ned’s journey is, unexpectedly, a narrative tension that moves the film almost into thriller territory. Hartley’s humor and intellectual musings are, as always, fully present, but by anchoring them to a genuinely compelling story of familial retribution, he’s made his best film in years.