Day One of SXSW and I’m already exhausted. I’ve been up late for several days just getting ready for the fest, and then had to rush down (or rather drive slowly on a grid-locked MoPac, thank you Austin) to get in line to get my express passes. I have three movies on the docket today – 808, 7 Days in Hell, and Excess Flesh. But the morning really started when I sat down with Captain Eugene Cernan, aka THE LAST MAN ON THE MOON. Look for an interview with him in upcoming days. The opening day of SXSW Film started big with Russell Brand’s film (ingeniously entitled BRAND) at the flagship theatre, The Paramount, the restoration of several lost Texas films from the eighties under the guidance of Jonathan Demme for MADE IN TEXAS at Austin Film Society’s own venue, the Marchesa, and Sundance favorites RESULTS, THE VISIT, THE NIGHTMARE, WELCOME TO LEITH, and WESTERN playing around town. Cernan’s film made its North American première inside the convention center at the spacious Vimeo theatre (not the best sound wise, but a huge screen). I head down south to the Alamo Lamar, the first time SXSW has been there since the remodel, which is always great for a meal and movie built into your schedule (I hate missing screening to do things as dull as eat a meal), for a music doc. Back at the convention center, the opening film in the Vimeo is Hal Hartley’s conclusion to the journey he began with his 1997 indie HENRY FOOL, the trilogy closing NED RIFLE.
I’m a strange audience for NED RIFLE. Despite having followed indie film since high school and being a huge Parker Posey fan, I’ve somehow missed the first two films in the cycle (HENRY FOOL and FAYE GRIMM). So this is a review of the third movie of a trilogy, by someone who has not seen the first two parts. With that admission out-of-the-way. NED RIFLE is a solid drama with deeply developed characters and a lot of joy. Liam Aiken plays Ned, who has been in witness protection with a pastor’s family while his mother (Fay Grim, Parker Posey) serves out her jail sentence. Now 18, Ned wants nothing more than to hunt down his prize-winning poet father Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan) and murder him. A majority of the film is a drawn out goose chase through the characters from Ned’s past (and the previous two films) each one leading him one step closer and finally ending with the showdown.
What could be a tiresome series of cameos and characters that only serve to point Ned to his next stop never feels as such for two reasons. One, each interaction is full of so much back story and depth that as a viewer, you are only scratching the surface of what these people are really thinking. Of course, this may have been because I hadn’t seen the prior two films – but I was never lost, it felt completely real. The characters dispense with any exposition or plot points and just get down to emotional baggage, again, a lot of which is left unspoken. I actually preferred not knowing the back story, because it made the interactions feel that much more authentic. We don’t rehash every moment of our life when we meet people from the past, we already know it all.
The second reason NED RIFLE draws in its audience and lifts them from place to place with such joy is the infusion of Aubrey Plaza. Plaza plays a Grimm stalker. She has staked out a couch in the lobby of Simon Grimm’s hotel, she is ghost writing Faye’s autobiography. She wrote her graduate thesis on Henry. When she runs into Ned, she latches on to him like an octopus, never letting him far from her sight, no matter how hard he tries to lose her. Ned sees himself as a righteous man, despite his murderous thoughts, and Plaza’s Susan is a messy temptation. She has no qualms with offering sexual favors to get what she wants and she oozes with pure lascivity. The camera falls in love with her. I’ve never seen so many shots of a beautiful girl sleeping or laying still pretending to be sleeping. But it’s charming because she’s not very good at it. She constantly misapplies her make up. She makes ridiculously forward statements. She’s as messed up as the rest of the characters in the film.
So Aubrey Plaza fits perfectly into this world, and sort of takes it over. Although Ned is the one with the journey of vengeance, Susan is who the audience watches because her indelicate meeting with Ned’s father is unavoidable. I’ll be interested to (now) watch the first two films and see how they color my perception of NED RIFLE, but on its own, the film really works, and it is the new character that carries it. Plaza turns in her best yet performance, because there is so much to work with in this borderline well-meaning sociopath. My biggest disappointment with the film was that, at 85 minutes, it’s a bit short. Many of the characters that were set up (or revisited from previous films) never really pay off, they just become a stop on the trip. The ending is very sudden – and I wish there had been a more all-encompassing set-piece type third act where more of the characters introduced played into the result. In the end, it ends up feeling not like the conclusion of something, but another installment in a serial. Maybe Hal Hartley has another film up his sleeve with these characters.
NED RIFLE makes its US première at SXSW and will be available on VOD on April 1st from Hal Hartley’s own website and Vimeo on Demand.