I did not like the Hal Hartley films Henry Fool and Fay Grim, but the third one in the director’s trilogy—Ned Rifle (2014)—is something else again. It’s a characteristically oddball intellectual comedy about a young Christian, Ned Rifle (Liam Aiken), who is confused enough to want to kill his repelling father (Thomas Jay Ryan) for ruining his imprisoned mother’s life. Not romantically Ned takes up with Susan (Aubrey Plaza) who, unknown to Ned, was once the victim of his father’s, Henry Fool’s, statutory rape. Susan is aware of this too.
It seems we may infer from this movie that the twenty-first century is no different from any other century in that it is one of sin and one of enlightened religious self-interest, and religious commitment. The century inevitably serves up America the saved and America the damned, as it were; and it is sometimes challenging to tell one from the other.
This is probably Hartley’s best picture, despite more striking characters in some of those earlier films (e.g. Trust). But Ned Rifle is just as piercing and palatable as the early stuff, and its black-comic plot is free of the artist’s past adolescent jolts.