Toronto 2014: 'Ned Rifle' review

★★★★☆
With Henry Fool (1997), Hal Hartley introduced the world to his garrulous and hedonistic eponymous rogue who, amongst other things, impregnated an impressionable young woman. Years later, she was coerced into a labyrinthine plot regarding her former husband's long lost notebooks that resulted in her own self-titled movie, Fay Grim (2006). Now, Hartley has returned to the family to complete his trilogy with new film Ned Rifle (2014) featuring returning cast members, but centred on the offspring of Fool and Grim. Rife with the director's trademark stylistic preferences, this is a blast of an idiosyncratic comedy full of brilliant deadpan performances that offer a wickedly funny and poignant conclusion to the fable.

Hartley's irreverence is evident from the very first moments, as a priest responds to the intention to commit murder with "I was going to say 'go in peace'." Set seven years after the events of his mother's film landed her (Parker Posey) in prison, Ned (Liam Aiken) turns eighteen and decides that it is time to leave the doting household in which he's been raised by the witness protection programme. In a fantastically funny aforementioned conversation with his adopted father, Ned reveals his decidedly un-Christian plan to find the man responsible for ruining everyone's lives - his father (Thomas Jay Ryan) - and kill him. That search takes him to Uncle Simon (James Urbaniak), where he also meets a new travelling companion; femme fatale and "winsome tart" Susan (Aubrey Plaza), an academic type daubed in cheap make-up.

Hartley delights in toying with convention. At one point, a character remarks that "one couldn't fault the grammar, but the irony was a bit too intense for me," and it's hard not to imagine this a pre-emptive review of his own film within the screenplay. The script is exceptionally tight, despite being crammed full of verbose discourse between speakers philosophising over some issue or other. The plot is propelled with great economy and the narrative never fails to surprise, confounding expectations at every available opportunity. Ned is a well-drawn teenager torn between his hatred of his father's carelessness and drawn to the wanton Susan, who represents the same in initially unseen ways. All of the cast are fantastic in the roles; Plaza and Ryan in particular excel at delivering ridiculously convoluted declamations. A reveal about Susan's past may raise the hackles of some, but in fact it is handled deftly and slotted into the rhythm of the closing beats with hardly a skip. The eccentricities and arch delivery may put off some that are new to Hartley's work, but otherwise Ned Rifle feels like a fitting send-off for some of his best-known characters.

The Toronto International Film Festival takes place from 4-14 September 2014. For more coverage, follow this link.

Ben Nicholson

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