“Ned Rifle” is a movie populated by characters who most likely only belong in the world of its director Hal Hartley. Just about everyone speaks in articulate and literary terms, even a garbage man who fancies himself a poet despite the fact he goes to a strip club in the middle of the day. Its premise revolves around what is essentially a murder plot, but the journey towards the intended victim proves to be even more interesting than the murder itself.
The story also serves as conclusion to a story that began for Hartley with the movie “Henry Fool” in 1997, and continued with “Fay Grim” in 2006. That last movie was a complicated spy caper starring a brilliant Parker Posey, but “Ned Rifle” remains accessible for anyone who might be new to Hartley’s world. Following the events that transpired in the 2006 movie, Fay Grim (Posey) is now in prison with a life sentence for alleged terrorist activities. Fay is clearly a woman who likes to look on the bright side of life, since she has joined the prison’s yoga group, and has started a book club where she intends to read the long classics like “Les Misérables” and “War and Peace” seeing as she has all the time the world.
After Fay’s imprisonment her son Ned Rifle (Liam Aiken) was placed in witness protection, and was raised by a devout Christian family. The religious environment made an impression on him since despite his good looks he is still a virgin, or chaste as he prefers to say, and intends to remain so until marriage. However Ned has clearly taken to the Old Testament, since before leaving his adopted home he tells Reverend Gardner (Martin Donovan) his intention to find his father Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan), whom he blames for his mother’s prison sentence, and promptly kill him. This makes for a bit of an awkward situation for the reverend, as he was about to tell Ned to go in peace.
Ned’s journey of revenge takes him to his uncle Simon Grim (James Urbaniak), a formerly successful poet who now wants to become popular by doing comedy routines on his YouTube channel. On his way he encounters Susan (Aubrey Plaza), a fan of Simon’s poetic work who asks Ned to arrange a meeting between the two. When she figures out Ned is looking for his father it becomes clear there is more to her story than she is saying as she joins him on his search, even though the last thing Ned needs is an eye witness.
This is obviously an odd story populated by its share of oddball characters, and Plaza fits right in, although Susan is a somewhat more nuanced character than the ones she has played before. Fiercely intelligent and daring, she could give all literature professors a run for their money. However she also has a sex scene that is so powerful it knocks out the power to a motel. “Chaste” is definitely not part of her extensive vocabulary.
The movie also makes good use of Ned’s gun and the lone bullet he has reserved for his father. There is a rule in theatre that if a gun is introduced it must be fired at some point, and to Hartley’s credit when the bullet is fired it still comes as a shock.
The ending of “Ned Rifle” is not quite satisfying due to its ambiguity, which is surprising since this is supposed to be the end of a trilogy. However if you have met these characters before in their previous adventures it is a joy to see them again, and if you are new to the party you might be tempted to catch up on the previous chapters to see where it all began for Rifle, Grim, and Fool.
(“Ned Rifle” is now out on V.O.D and is streaming on Netflix.)