If you're familiar at all with indie filmmaker Hal Hartley's work, you know there's a surreal quality to it. Slightly mannered performances, with a skewed theological and sexual didactic underpin his morality plays. Good and evil, God and the devil in a sense costar.
Which might not sound entertaining, yet when the writer-director is on his game, as he is in "Ned Rifle," the effect is bizarre black comedy that is designed to set you thinking about what his satire is really saying.
"Ned" stars Liam Aiken, Aubrey Plaza, Parker Posey, Thomas Jay Ryan and James Urbaniak. It represents both a stand-alone example of the filmmaker's signature style and a finishing of sorts for a story he began in 1998 with Ryan, Posey, Urbaniak and a very young Aiken in "Henry Fool."
As the final chapter in this trilogy begins, Ned (Aiken) is turning 18 and leaving witness protection. His mother, Fay Grim (Posey), the subject of the second and weakest of the trilogy, 2006's "Fay Grim," is serving a life sentence for terrorism. The reasons are complex but they all have to do with Henry (Ryan).
Henry's a charismatic and crazy novelist, Ned's father, and the man who inspired Fay's brother, Simon (Urbaniak), to morph from garage man to serious poet, both published and acclaimed.
The family that has housed Ned for the last four years had a profound effect on him, particularly the patriarch, Rev. Daniel Gardner (Martin Donovan). Under the reverend's influence, Ned has become extremely devout, chaste even, which given the years his father served in prison for sex with a minor makes sense.
Ned's sole mission in life now that he's of age is to kill his father for destroying his mother's life. But he prays about it. These conflicting themes — God, murder and sins of the father — drive the film's existential conversations.
Susan (Plaza) is a grad student whose thesis is on Simon's poetry, and she's desperate to meet the reclusive writer. Simon's more focused on his blog about stand-up comedy these days. She's also helping Fay write her jailhouse memoir. Oh, and she dresses like Lolita.
Nothing is a coincidence.
With the players and their relative positions in Hartley's strange galaxy in place, he's about to put them on a collision course. Shot with a minimalist style, gritty tone and muted colors by director of photography Vladimir Subotic, even this many years in Hartley still makes the film feel like an experiment.
Aiken and Plaza have a little trouble relaxing into the weird. Though Aiken made his film debut at 7 in "Henry's Fool," the tonality Hartley insists he handle as an adult never sits quite right. Plaza brings a brooding blankness of someone trying to hide what they are thinking, ideal for her character, but the sense syntax of the dialogue trips her up.
Ryan, Posey and Urbaniak, however, are right at home. The two sparring males have always been the best components of the films, and when Ryan is on screen as Henry he makes for mesmerizing watching in the way of brilliant fools.
The story begins to make more sense as Ned makes his way to Seattle. Henry was last spotted there. He's rumored to be participating in drug trials for the slightly deranged and writing eviscerating critiques of Simon's stand-up blog. Susan insinuates herself into the trip.
The ending comes with a nice twist and a sobering shock. But by this point, no one was expecting happily ever after.
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes