By James Hancock September 26th, 2014
With “Ned Rifle” filmmaker Hal Hartley has delivered his strongest film in many years and proved once again to be one of the most original and enduring voices in American Independent Film. If you are unfamiliar with Hartley’s work I strongly suggest that you simply start at the beginning of his filmography and work your way up to his latest effort. “Ned Rifle” is the third and final film in a saga that began with “Henry Fool” in 1997, the first film by Hartley I ever saw and one that prompted me to go back and hungrily devour his other films going back to his debut feature film, “The Unbelievable Truth” (1989). Last Fall, when I learned that Hartley was using Kickstarter to raise money for the project, I was absolutely thrilled and I happily contributed enough money to guarantee me a seat at the New York premiere of the film. I quickly became dismayed, however, when the campaign struggled to sustain any momentum and soon Hal Hartley announced that he was throwing in the towel and abandoning the crowd funding campaign altogether. Thankfully his friends and fans, as well as filmmakers and comic book writers rallied to his support and Hartley soon met and then exceeded his goal to make the film a reality. This is the ideal kind of film that crowd funding should be used for and I couldn’t be more proud to be listed as a “Filmmaker’s Friend” in the closing credits.
As a writer and director, Hartley’s style of storytelling is completely his own. While he has worked with many cinematographers, every one of his films is instantly recognizable just by looking at one frame of film. If his films were not already distinctive enough, Hartley also composes the scores to his work giving his movies a warm familiarity that immediately makes me grin with glee the moment one of his movies begins. Throughout his career, Hartley has cultivated an incredible troupe of actors (Parker Posey, Robert Burke, Thomas Jay Ryan, Bill Sage, Martin Donovan, Karen Silas, Liam Aiken, Adrienne Shelly, and James Urbaniak to name but a few) many of whom appear in “Ned Rifle”. Hartley’s dialogue is overtly self conscious and stylized to the point where actors can either deliver the lines or they can’t. His words strike a very specific tone, one that defies easy categorization, but luckily Hartley has found ideal collaborators in the actors listed above. With “Ned Rifle” Hartley has added perhaps his best member to his troupe to date, Aubrey Plaza. I’ve always found her funny as hell and very easy on the eyes, but in “Ned Rifle” she has landed her most complex, memorable, and entertaining role of her career. She was born to read Hartley’s dialogue and if they continue to work together she could be the shot in the arm to his movies that Samuel L Jackson and Christoph Waltz have been for Quentin Tarantino.
Before and after the screening at the IFC Center, Hartley hosted a small gathering for his Kickstarter backers at The Fat Black Pussycat across the street. As anyone familiar with his movies knows, Hartley’s characters are prone to indulge in some hard drinking. I’m a whiskey man myself and it was an absolute privilege to tilt back some Jameson in the company of Hartley and his circle of supporters. The only downside of the evening was when I made a complete spectacle of myself while meeting Hal. I value interesting filmmakers more than anything else in this world and when I meet a director whose work I respect, I tend to act like a toddler who has been fed way too much chocolate. I typically gush shamelessly while grinning ear to ear like some obsessed serial killer. I’m ashamed to report that I went overboard even by my standards when I congratulated Hartley on his fine film. I couldn’t help it. The movie just kicks ass. I loved the story, laughed throughout its entirety, and was so caught off guard by the moving climax of the film that I just sat there stunned with goosebumps crawling up my arms and the back of my neck. For Hal Hartley fans, I give this movie my highest possible recommendation. If you’re not a fan, then shame on you. You’re missing out on one of the best filmmakers working today.
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