It’s Okay to be Unpopular: Hal Hartley, The Deadpan Tragedian

This piece originally was published in Queens Free Press in April 2015

Ned Rifle, the third in Hal Hartley’s trilogy begun with Henry Fool in 1998 and followed by Fay Grim in 2006, is a fitting labor-of-love that both celebrates the past and points towards an uncertain future that reflects not only the characters’ situations but perhaps Hartley’s own. A joint effort by filmmakers and fans (roughly $400,00 was raised in a Kickstarter project I contributed to), Rifle is a touching, troubling and funny end to Hartley’s intimate series investigating art, responsibility, family, media, courage and cowardice.  Much less epic in scope than the over two-hour Fool and the globetrotting Grim, Ned Rifles intimate brush-strokes seem right for a story focusing on Rifle, the uncertain, thoughtful child born of Henry Fool and Fay Grim’s unlikely coupling in the first film.

Financial realities facing independent cinema in the 21st century may help explain the small, even friendly, scale of this and Meanwhile, Hartley’s last (excellent) project.  All the same, both films show his powerful eye for inventive framing and odd but effective staging, and his ear for unusually rhythmic cadenced tongue-in-cheek philosophical dialogue that walks a fine line between the erudite and the wholly absurd. And in its own ways, the Fool/Grim/Rifle trilogy is an American Epic, dammit.

In the years since his father betrayed him and his mother ended up imprisoned as a terrorist, Ned Rifle (an exceptional, reserved Liam Aiken) has become deeply religious if rather confused, growing close to a minister (played by Hartley stalwart Martin Donovan) and his family but carrying an unhealthy obsession with his long-unseen but towering father figure.  Fool is a great conception of a character, a Falstaff of sorts, a brilliant buffoon who does the unforgivable and yet remains an essentially comic being; perhaps he’s more Harry Lime, than Falstaff; despite the damage he has caused we spend great chunks of both Grim and Rifle eagerly awaiting his appearance as other characters chatter on about him; there isn’t a character in all three films who doesn’t feel Fool’s betrayed them in some way but also feel vaguely guilty, as if they are somehow the betrayers.  Thomas Jay Ryan, who has generally performed on the stage, appeared out of nowhere to supply a ferocious performance in Fool, and has done little on film otherwise, so will likely be defined by this character.  But what a character!  All three films are about people with profound blockades between them and the worlds they inhabit, yet their defenses are shattered when it comes to Fool; its the role I’d say Ryan was born to play if not for his note-perfect interpretation of a sullen, misunderstood, and grumpy Devil butting heads with Donovan’s Jesus in Hartley’s indelible and underseen Book of Life.

Jesus and the Devil in Hartley's BOOK OF LIFE

Both Fool’s son and a girl, Susan, who Fool slept with when she was 13, are obsessed with hunting him down and confronting him for sins both real and possibly exaggerated in their minds.  Despite simply being mentioned briefly in the first film, Susan (played by Parks and Recreations Aubrey Plaza) is a seamless addition to the film, as equally damaged by and in awe of Fool as the characters we are well familiar with.  While being back in the company of Hartley regulars Ryan, Parker Posey, Robert John Burke, Aiken and James Urbaniak is most welcome for fans, Plaza’s wide-eyed entrance into this twisted comic world adds a freshness, a bloom, to the third film. Her character neither feels like a fraud or a gawky insertion into a  world vividly established 17 years ago.


In its own way, it’s as thrilling to see these characters mature and develop as it is to see the family mature in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood; it also forces viewers such as I to look back at where we were in 1998, when the future of indie cinema seemed limitless, with Hartley, Kevin Smith, Spike Lee and Richard Linklater spearheading a movement who’s time was, alas, already bordering on an unceremonious end.  That future is already behind, but with Ned Rifle we see that Hartley has persisted, beautifully so.  His early 21st century work, No Such Thing and Girl From Monday, made before his self-banishment to Berlin, were uncertain and confused, a bit sanctimonious and sour.  With Grim, Meanwhile, and now Ned Rifle, it is evident that Hartley has rematerialized in an even more uncertain world with a better sense of who he is and what he should be doing.  His body of work has no need for critical generosity from me, but his perspective, defined by affection for and sensitivity towards injured hearts, faith that flies in the face of logic, and the possibility for redemption, is an exceptional one and should be rightfully esteemed.  And so should Kickstarter, for that matter.


Fool in the first film carried around tattered notebook after notebook containing his epic manuscript, which he described as “a philosophy, a literature of protest, a novel of ideas” and “a pornographic magazine of truly comic-book proportions.” After three films which have propelled his characters from Woodside, Queens, to Berlin, Istanbul, Paris and back in pursuit of great poetry, encoded terrorist threats, romance, murder and revenge, it starts to feel as if the Fool trilogy is Hartley’s fair shot at his own skewed, deadpan magnum opus to rival Fool’s. For all their elevated ambitions, his films have a strange ability to be breezy, offhand and downright silly even when venturing into bleak,  disagreeable territories, whether international politics or the politics of family. Ned Rifle is quirky, damn funny, and may well break your heart. A true individualist, Hartley is the master of Deadpan Tragedy.

For a comprehensive oral history of the making of these films, click HERE.

Ned Rifle opens tomorrow in Huntington, Long Island while continuing at the IFC Center in Manhattan.  Hartley will be appearing in person tomorrow night in Huntington at 7 pm for a Q&A.

The film is also available On Demand via Vimeo.

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