Still Hal Hartley’s best and most popular film, 1997’s “Henry Fool” seemed the beginning of a new phase; unfortunately, the phase turned out to be a dismaying long slide from that artistic and commercial peak, one not particularly slowed by the silly international-intrigue antics of the first “Henry” sequel, “Fay Grim,” a decade later. Hope springs eternal, however, and there’s relief in the fact that while “Ned Rifle” is no “Fool,” it’s still the writer-helmer’s best work since then. Bringing back the original principal characters while shifting primary focus to two next-generation ones, this characteristically sly, unpredictable comedy-adventure should rouse Hartley fans from hibernation to score wider visibility than he’s enjoyed in some time.
Seven years after she unwisely tried to track down incorrigibly hedonistic would-be author and husband Henry (Thomas Jay Ryan), getting involved in terrorist activities as a hapless result, Fay (Parker Posey) is serving a life sentence in a federal penitentiary for crimes against the state. In the meantime their son Ned (Liam Aiken) has been foster-parented under a Witness Protection Program pseudonym by Rev. Gardner (Martin Donovan) and his family, emerging a pious believer — albeit the kind more interested in hellfire retribution than forgiveness. Upon his 18th birthday, he determines to track down the fugitive father he believes ruined his mother’s life and kill him for his sins.
But first he has to find him. After visiting Mom in lockup (“You’re religious?!” she exclaims, baffled), he pays a visit to reclusive former-poet-laureate uncle Simon (James Urbaniak), who suspects Henry might be hiding out in Seattle. Tagging along without an invitation is Susan (Aubrey Plaza), who’s written her graduate dissertation on Simon Grim’s work — but as the pic goes along, her real agenda is revealed as something far more complex than mere obsessing over an admired writer.
Though lacking the emotional depth and almost epic scope that made “Henry Fool” loom so large after Hartley’s anecdotal, idiosyncratic early features, “Ned Rifle” is a far more satisfactory extension of its memorable characters than the misbegotten “Fay Grim.” It’s a real pleasure to see Urbaniak, Posey and live-wire Ryan slip back into these singular characters; a variety of smaller roles are cannily cast with Hartley regulars and other capable hands. (Including, briefly and oddly, Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman.)
But the emphasis this time is handed over to the younger figures played by Aiken (who’s played the same role in all three films, since age 7) and Plaza. Playing a sexier, more troubled soul than on TV’s “Parks and Recreation,” latter nonetheless employs the same comedic deadpan to fit neatly into writer-helmer’s distinctive, terse yet garrulously funny universe. Her character may stir controversy in some quarters due to a revelation of past consensual sex between an adult and someone way under the legal limit.
While Hartley has never been one for lush aesthetics, the pic has a definite tight-budget feel unalleviated by his own original synth-based score. That doesn’t detract from its appeal, however.