SXSW Film Review – Ned Rifle
SXSW Film Festival started with a blind pick for me. Other than the brief synopsis and knowing the cast attached, Ned Rifle was pretty much an unknown to me. Surprisingly (to me), Ned Rifle is the final chapter in a trilogy of films written and directed by Hal Hartley. The precursors are Henry Fool (1997) and Fay Grim (2006), both titles referring to the father and mother respectively of the son, whom the third film is named after. I at least took comfort in the Hartley’s comments prior to the screening that it can be a standalone film.
Ned Rifle follows the journey of its namesake, previously known as Ned Grim (Liam Aiken). He turns 18 and is leaving the witness protection program. He has spent the past few years living with a pastor and his family, becoming essentially a devout, chaste Christian. His mother, Fay Grim (Parker Posey), is imprisoned on a terrorism charge, and his father, Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan), has disappeared. Even though Ned has the idealism and demonstrations of a Christian, he is leaving his home to find and kill his father for what he has brought onto the family. On the sidelines is Susan (Aubrey Plaza), an emotionally unstable, sexualized, older ingénue (can that even happen?) with a penchant for lipstick. Her entrance into the story complicates Ned’s end goal.
First off, the film is funny, but not in the obvious, general type of humor that you see in mainstream films. This comedy is deadpan, said with a straight face, and using quick back and forth dialogue between characters. I would categorize it as “dry” humor. Some of it is funny because the dialogue is ridiculous, sometimes it is the situation. The most comedic characters are Simon Grim (James Urbaniak), Fay Grim, and the small role of Derek (Jed Feiman), an offscreen character with just a couple of lines.
There is an underlying theme dealing with religion. Ned is almost a devout Christian, his blood family is not, and the suggestion that his father is the Devil. This is taken a step further when his father is found. Complications in Ned’s road to find and kill his father have suggestions of being God’s doing, miracles. Whether Hartley intended it to be or not, religion is a major part of this film. Fortunately, it is not in a preachy sort of way. This is not Hartley’s attempt to convert the misguided souls of SXSW.
Most of the film focuses on the relationship between Susan and Ned. Susan is a weird girl. She appears in the hotel lobby and basically attaches herself to Ned after overhearing that he is related to renowned poet Simon Grim, the focus of her dissertation in grad school. The situations that lead Susan to become attached to this family are too weird and spoiler-filled to spell out in a review. Suffice it to say that Aubrey Plaza carries this weird, well-spoken girl very well. Her sexuality is very out there to take, but Ned is just uninterested. The wardrobe is always sexual with a hint of still trying to be a young girl. Knee-high stockings or socks do that very well. Susan ends up being a character that I cannot fully understand or explain. She has her goals in life and there is a lot going on in the periphery it.
Ned Rifle should be seen by those who have enjoyed Hal Hartley’s two previous films. As a standalone film, it is okay, but I think it may have made more sense and gotten references to previous films if I had seen them. The type of humor is not for everyone. There are obviously fans of Hartley’s work and they are eager to see the closure of the trilogy. The successful Kickstarter campaign is alone evidence of that. Ned Rifle will find its audience, and I do not doubt that some newcomers will appreciate the film by itself.